Though the opening of the Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center ushers in a new era of Brown athletics, it carries with it a curious piece of Brunonian history and an East Side landmark - the shimmering 50-foot cupola and clock tower. The cupola once topped the Marvel Gynamsium, which was built in 1927. Forgotten after the gym was demolished in 2003, the cupola has now found a new home.
Built during a “sports-crazed era,” the Marvel Gym was widely considered to be one of the best sports complexes on the east coast after its construction, said Peter Mackie ’59, Brown athletics archivist. This claim is supported by Providence Journal clippings that Mackie carefully preserves on the eighth floor of the John Hay library.
But the gym’s distance from campus proved problematic. As early as the 1940s, the University began planning a new building, Mackie said.
After Marvel’s demolition in 2003, the cupola was left out on the corner of gym’s former location. The exposure chipped the cupola’s paint and the gold leaf of its antique weather vane. The vane, worth an estimated $50,000, was left vulnerable to theft and vandalism, Mackie said.
“I was just trying to keep the issue alive with the football association, with anyone who would listen - the alumni magazine, facilities,” Mackie said, with the fervor of a man who loves Brown sports so much he carried memorabilia from the old gym to the new trophy room in Pizzitola Center himself - despite having been cut from the varsity basketball team his freshman year.
The Department of Facilities Management looked at several options for saving the cupola, including making it a gazebo or a ticket booth. But as the initial modern design for the new athletic facilities evolved into something more reminiscent of the original Marvel Gym, a home for the cupola was found again.
When the University considered keeping only one of the original clocks, Mackie wrote a letter to President Ruth Simmons expressing his concerns about the plan. He credited Simmons with salvaging all four clocks, one for each side of the cupola.
“It was really (the cupola), plus the bronze Bruno statue, that were the symbols of the Brown athletic program,” Mackie said.
Mackie said the fact that Brown dedicated so much time and resources to the restoration of the cupola - including replacing the leafing with gold paint and the original copper – demonstrates the University’s increased dedication to preserving its past. But he said he believes some sort of historical exhibit is necessary for Brown students to fully appreciate the history of the University’s athletic buildings.
Henry Aldrich 1876 and his brother Charles Aldrich 1877 provided the majority of the $600,000 price tag – a staggering amount at the time - for the Marvel Gym, which was located across from the current Brown Stadium, Mackie said. The limestone and brick building reflected classic Brown architecture, Mackie said. Though uncertain of the origin of the idea for the letters spelling out the words ‘Aldrich Field’ in place of numbers on the clock, Mackie said it was an intentional dedication to the two influential brothers.
“Everything was personal back then. Very personal,” Mackie said.
The football boom of the 1920s solidified Marvel’s importance, he added. In fact, in addition to a “seat-buying” campaign to raise money from alums for Marvel, men from other schools, such as Harvard, donated money so that their teams could actually play at Brown, where facilities had been inadequate for play.
The cupola withstood the hurricane of 1938 and once had a trapdoor where you could sneak inside, Mackie said.
“It’s a sentimental image - particularly for football,” Mackie said. “You saw the shimmering gold leaf on top of the cupola sitting in the home stands … I think, on some level, a lot of people really associate with that.”
Mackie remains skeptical that the new facilities will reinvigorate student love for Bruno sports, he said, citing the changes since the glory days of the varsity football squad, which was once the social center of a smaller, more homogenous school.
Hype for the Nelson Fitness Center, though, seems just as high as it was for Marvel almost a century ago.
“It’s going to be the best athletic facility on the east coast,” said David Longo, coordinator of facilities and operations for athletics. “I’m really happy they were able to tie the past to the present.”