With the construction of the new T. Jefferson Coolidge Jr. Athletic Performance and Wellness Center underway this summer, thoughts turn to the history of athletic facilities at St. Mark's and their evolution over a century -and -a -half.
There were no organized sports at St. Mark's when it was founded in 1865. There were, in fact, no opportunities for physical development and physical fitness at the School beyond swimming and occasionally boating recreationally at nearby Parker Pond. In the winter months, hunting and trapping encompassed the outdoor exercise of some interested St. Markers, while others might enjoy sledding down local hills.
It was the School's second headmaster, George Herbert Patterson, who saw this as an area that needed addressing. So in the winter of 1866 he had the upper floor of the barn adjacent to the original School building renovated into a small gymnasium space, adding a climbing rope, hand weights, parallel bars, and a pair of hanging rings.
This gym continued to support St. Mark's nascent athletic endeavors into the tenure of Mr. Patterson's successor, Dr. Robert Traill Spence Lowell. While Dr. Lowell himself was not very much interested in sports, he recognized its value in an educational community. More athletic equipment was added to the barn in 1869-70, students began kicking around an inflated pig's bladder (an early football) that same year, and in the winter boys began playing "shinny" – a sort-of-hand-made ice hockey game—on a frozen Parker Pond. In the fall of 1870, three St. Mark's students and a St. Mark's faculty member trained for weeks in a newly purchased rowing shell, in order to take part in the School's first-ever athletic event against outside competition: a crew race in Framingham which St. Mark's lost.
In the autumn of 1871, Dr. Lowell hired a new teacher—William Edward Peck—who arrived from a stellar baseball career at Trinity College to teach in Southborough and to oversee the expansion of St. Mark's athletic opportunities. Baseball was introduced that same fall, and on October 7, 1871, St. Mark's played its first outside baseball game, losing to the Harvard Freshmen despite a strong pitching performance from Mr. Peck (in those days, and for almost four decades following, faculty members could play on student teams as long as they met a weight-limit requirement).
More sports would follow under Mr. Peck's leadership, encouraged by the School's fourth headmaster, Dr. James Ivers Trecothick Coolidge. Rowing and baseball were still the favorite pastimes. In 1875, William Howe, SM Class of 1877, introduced the first catcher's mask ever used in the United States, while catching for the St. Mark's varsity. The following fall, Rugby football was introduced at the School, and it would rapidly evolve into the American gridiron game. Meanwhile, the original barn gymnasium was also renovated to create a makeshift handball court, as that sport was becoming increasingly popular.
Mr. Peck was elevated to the position of headmaster in 1882, and team sports in football and baseball continued to expand their schedules, while club sports like handball, tennis, rowing, track-and-field, and ice hockey were also active. The School's only athletic field was just to the north and east of the original campus, in the shadow of the new main building being constructed. That building was occupied in 1890. Within a year, its front cloister had become its own kind of athletic facility with the invention of "cloisterball"—a game unique to St. Mark's. The playing ground for both St. Mark's football and baseball was soon renamed Belmont Field, in honor of the family who also funded the new School chapel, enabling the dream of a new main building to be realized.
In the spring of 1894, Mr. Peck suddenly left St. Mark's, to be replaced by William Greenough Thayer, the School's sixth headmaster. There were many St. Markers who were upset by this, and that fall, when construction on a brand new gymnasium was completed, the St. Mark's Athletic Association unanimously voted to name it "The Peck Gymnasium." The original gym—the old barn from the original campus—would eventually be transported to School Street, where it served as the principal storage facility for the St. Mark's grounds crew until well into the 1980s, when it was finally torn down.
The Peck Gymnasium would serve St. Mark's well for the next 40 years. It was fully equipped with exercise equipment, and early in the 20th century courts for playing Fives and squash were constructed in its confines. Basketball was introduced there as an intramural sport by one of Dr. Thayer's most significant hires—George B. Velte. Velte arrived at the School In 1905, after several years as the lone member of Trinity College's fledgling "athletic department." He was a graduate of Springfield College, where one of his most influential professors was Dr. James B. Naismith, inventor of basketball. "Doc" Velte's office and training room were in the basement of the Peck Gymnasium, and over the next 30 years he reigned as St. Mark's "Physical Director," as well as filling that role for several summers at Brantwood Camp.
In 1914, the Armour family donated the funds to build the Armour Cage, a brand new facility for team practices during inclement weather. It stood some 50 yards east of the Peck Gymnasium, and would prove to be integral in the growth of sports at St. Mark's. New fields were added during Dr. Thayer's 36 successful years as St. Mark's headmaster: first Barber Field, then Barton and Flichtner fields. Outdoor ice hockey rinks were constructed to the west of the main campus, across Marlborough Road. And rowing re-emerged as a varsity sport, with a St. Mark's boathouse on Fort Meadow in nearby Marlborough.
In 1930, Dr. Thayer retired, and for the first time a St. Mark's alumnus—Francis Parkman, Class of 1915—was named headmaster. A star athlete—football, baseball, and later rowing—at St. Mark's and Harvard, Dr. Parkman supported an effort to build a new athletic building at the School. In 1935, the Elkins Field House—complete with locker and equipment facilities, a basketball court, a wrestling room, indoor courts, and more—was dedicated and opened. It would quickly replace the Peck Gymnasium, which had already become more of a multi-purpose venue, with a stage for plays and concerts erected at its western end. The old gym would eventually become an auditorium, renamed for St. Mark's alumnus Albert Emerson Benson, Class of 1888.
Velte was succeeded by the School's first Athletic Director—David Elmer Coe—who began the modernization of the athletic department. Some thirty years later, Mr. Coe would be followed by William A. "Fritz" Wiedergott, one of the great athletic directors and coaches of any New England boarding school.For more than 50 years, Elkins Field House was the main athletic building at St. Mark's. During that same time, more fields—including Lawrence Field and Thayer Field—came into use, the outdoor hockey rink first situated to the west of Marlborough Road was resituated adjacent to Elkins and eventually enclosed, and a rowing tank was added to Elkins.
But with the advent of coeducation, it became very clear that more was needed. The original Southborough School athletic programs had no distinct facilities. The girls used their dormitories as locker rooms and played wither on a rough makeshift outdoor field and single tennis court on their own campus, or borrowed use of some of the St. Mark's campus venues. After 1978, the Dixon Room below the small dining room (now the Lion's Den) was repurposed as a girls' locker room, but it was seriously inadequate, as were the subsequent attempts to create locker space for young women at the School. So in 1988-89 work began on a brand new building, attached to both Elkins and the Gardner Hockey Rink, which would ultimately become the Michel Faculty Athletic Center, opening in 1990-91.
Today, there are even more athletic fields, St. Mark's rowers are at home on Worcester's Lake Quinsigamond, the interior of the Armour Cage has been renovated, and in the winter, Benson is once again repurposed to its original Peck Gymnasium use, as a wrestling room. And the Coolidge Athletic Performance and Wellness Center will both reclaim the importance of Elkins and help provide cutting-edge athletic and fitness opportunities for all St. Markers.