The Histories of Penn State
Penn State Intercom......January 30, 2003

A community's vision

'Bathhouse U.' grew to serve Altoona's educational needs

Altoona at a glance

By Marty Jo Irvin
Penn State Altoona altoona1

Editor's note: Most people know the history of Penn State as that of a school chartered in 1855 at the request of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society to apply scientific principles to farming. Since that time, Penn State has grown from that one campus at University Park to 24 locations statewide, and each of those other locations has its own history. Intercom is continuing to highlight those stories.


It began as a dream -- a dream by a group of local citizens to support an undergraduate center in Altoona. From its humble beginnings in an abandoned grade-school building, to its move to Ivyside Park in 1948 on the site of a former amusement park, and through its growth in the 1970s and into the 21st century, Penn State Altoona has seen many changes. Altoona_pond1

The vision began in June 1929, when 15 young men from the Altoona Works of the Pennsylvania Railroad started to take Penn State Extension courses in the evening at the Altoona High School. By 1938, the extension study had 175 students enrolled, and University officials who were sent to Altoona realized that the city really wanted a junior college and would support it by attending.

The plea for an undergraduate center went out to the local community in 1939, led by Altoona Chamber of Commerce Chairman J.E. (Ted) Holsinger, who rallied support to convert an abandoned grade-school building into a classroom building.

With the support of the local community, more than $5,000 was raised in just a few months to restore the abandoned Webster Elementary School in Altoona for the new college. These funds were raised under the leadership of Holsinger and E.C. Gegenheimer, Middle Division superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Since the railroad was thriving in Altoona during its heyday, the Altoona shopmen gave the campaign a boost with a $1,000 contribution.

Accommodating 119 freshmen and nine faculty members, the college opened its doors on Sept. 13, 1939 -- an amazing feat since Penn State's then-president Ralph D. Hetzel had agreed only five months earlier to support an undergraduate center in Altoona. Robert E. Eiche, who had been administrative head of the Hazleton Penn State Center, arrived in Altoona to guide the new Altoona Undergraduate Center.

Known as the A.U.C., the new college quickly grew in popularity -- and outgrew its location in the Webster building. The Altoona School Board offered the use of "Old Madison," another abandoned elementary school building in the city at Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street. Again, $5,000 was needed to get the building in condition for science studies and, again, the citizens' committee, which had been reorganized into an advisory board for the center, rallied together to raise the money to prepare the building for sophomore science labs. Five more instructors were added to the original nine when Madison opened.

"Madison Building was eight blocks from Webster, so it was quite a feat to make it from one to the other in the 10 minutes between classes," recalled Bob Smith, a 1938 graduate who also worked as the center's first secretary and registrar and continued on the college's staff until his retirement in 1983.

Hard times fell on the A.U.C., however, when World War II almost forced its closing. Men went to war, women went to work and there simply wasn't enough support from Altoona alone. To save the center, the Citizens Advisory Board purchased and operated a women's dormitory from 1944 through 1947. Out-of-town girls registered for classes, and the board agreed to finance operating deficits. During the war years, various engineering defense classes were conducted at the center to equip Altoona residents with skills they could use during wartime, in classes such as nursing, drafting, first aid, welding and applied chemistry.

Following World War II, veterans returned home and overfilled the Webster and Madison buildings and by 1946 the center desperately needed more space. Acting on the advice of Jim McNeal, A.U.C. board vice-chairman, Holtzinger prompted discussions with the family of E. Raymond Smith, who began construction on Ivyside Amusement Park in 1924 and ran it from 1927 until his death in 1945. Formerly one of the largest amusement parks in the country, the 38-acre abandoned park closed in 1945 because of gasoline rationing from the war.

As Smith's son, Ray, recalled, "There were several groups who wanted to buy (the abandoned park), but they wanted to put nightclubs on it. And if you knew my mother, you'd know that would never go. Finally, one day Bob Eiche came into my father's drug store and asked for a meeting with my mother and Ted Holtzinger. They asked about buying the park for the college, and my mother's eyes lit up. She was a college graduate herself, and all of us kids were college graduates, so it was an ideal situation."

The community rallied together and the A.U.C. Advisory Board raised more than $50,000 to purchase the abandoned amusement park, located in the Wehnwood area of Altoona.

The park saw its revival as former landmarks were gradually turned into a center for learning and the laughter of the amusement park days gave way to the serious business of learning. The spacious area that was formerly the world's largest concrete swimming pool -- which contained a tree-filled island in the middle, a large diving platform and 3 million gallons of water -- became a parking lot. The skating rink became a student union, and the two block-long bathhouse was turned into a classroom building -- hence the college's affectionate nickname, "Bathhouse U." The new Ivyside Park campus welcomed nearly 700 students and 30 faculty members during the fall of 1948.

As more students throughout the country began attending college, the demand for degree programs continued to grow. The college started offering evening classes and associate degree programs in drafting and design technology and electrical technology were introduced in the mid-1950s. The E. Raymond Smith Building, a classroom and administration building named in honor of Ivyside Park's founder, was built to replace the bathhouse. In 1958 with the opening of the Smith Building, the college's name was changed to the Altoona campus of The Pennsylvania State University.

Because more and more students from outside the Altoona area were attending the Altoona campus, the next logical building to make its home on campus was a residence hall. Built on the side of a hill adjacent to the pond, the first residence hall as well as the student commons opened in 1964.

The real growth period for the campus came a few years later during a $1 million building campaign. This extensive building project in the 1970s provided a second residence hall, a dining hall, library, science and engineering buildings, an all-faiths chapel and an athletic complex.

By this time, most of the buildings that had comprised the original amusement park had all but disappeared, with the exception of the Pine and Elm Buildings, which still stand today. Elm, which was originally the shooting gallery for Ivyside Park, wins the prize as being the most remodeled building on campus. It has had several facelifts through the years and has housed chemistry labs, art studios and offices during its history. Pine Building -- once a refreshment stand at the park -- became a three-dimensional design art studio. The Reflecting Pond, the focal point of the college, is the only other remaining feature of Ivyside Park. It originally was a warming pond for the stream water flowing into the swimming pool.  

Marty Jo Irvin can be reached at

Altoona at a glance

* William G. Cale Jr., campus executive officer and dean

* 125-acre campus in Altoona

* Student enrollment of 3,885

* 128 full-time faculty

* Student/faculty ratio of approximately 28 to 1

* First two years of about 180 Penn State majors

* Complete 15 bachelor's and nine associate degrees

* Professional development and continuing education programs

* 14 varsity sports teams

* 50 student clubs and organizations