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Campus Dining History

With so many enticing, ready-made food choices in the dining halls, cafes, and other dining venues around campus, there is little reason for students these days to think about preparing their own meals.

Back in the day, however, a stove for cooking was a precious commodity, as the September 14, 1867, diary entry of student Arthur Bower can attest.

“The room is a back room though of good size and well enough furnished with the exception of a stove which I shall have to get …”

A week later, Bower purchased his “Tropie” Ingraham and Phillips stove, which he also used for heat and light. He looked forward to an occasional box of goodies from his parents — a pot of butter, a loaf of bread, potatoes, or even ground corn and nuts.

It would be nearly 50 years later that Rensselaer offered its first on-campus dining hall, when the Institute built the Russell Sage Dining Hall in 1916. It was named in memory of a Rensselaer graduate and nephew of Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage. A well-known local philanthropist, Mrs. Sage donated $100,000 for the dining hall, which was completed as part of the Quadrangle Complex on Sage Avenue and 15th Street to accommodate boarding students.

There was some off-campus competition at the time. In the 1920 student handbook, for instance, an advertisement by the Troy Young Women’s Association offered a week’s worth of meals for $3, or breakfast, dinner, and tea at 25 cents each.

In the early 1940s, the dining hall was expanded to three times its original size to seat up to 600 students. The expansion was largely in response to the student population increase during World War II.

During the war, the dining hall was more like a military mess hall, with rows of men in uniform who had taken advantage of Rensselaer’s war training program. From 1940 to 1944, 7,000 had enrolled in the program that integrated military training with college degree opportunities.

After the war, the student population continued to accelerate, as thousands of veterans sought to start or complete their education, with many taking advantage of the new GI Bill of Rights.

More students meant more mouths to feed. To ease the overcrowding in the dining hall, the Snack Bar was constructed from surplus barracks in 1947. The structure, on 15th Street, was gutted in 1955 and converted into the F.E. Gallagher Memorial Infirmary. The building was recently demolished and the infirmary relocated to make room for Academy Hall.

In 1953, the Institute constructed a new dormitory complex to house a large incoming freshman class. The Commons Dining Hall, which seats more than 400, was built the following year, and has been renovated a number of times since.

—Jodi Ackerman Frank

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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