Sayles Hill Gymnasium

By Natalie Lafferty ’22

Sayles-Hill Gymnasium, built in 1910, was seen as the solution to a dire need on campus: an appropriate men’s gymnasium. During a Willis Chapel service in 1909, the construction of Sayles-Hill Gymnasium was announced as Frederick Burnett Hill and his wife, Deborah Sayles, donated $35,000 for a new men’s gymnasium– provided the college secure $20,000 to pay for running expenses. Frederick B. Hill, class of 1900, was a popular professor on campus, involved in athletics during his time as a student, serving as the baseball team’s star left-handed pitcher. He married Deborah Sayles, a member of the wealthy Sayles family from Rhode Island, allowing them excess income to dedicate to Carleton athletics. 

Immediately after the announcement for the new gymnasium was made, the students let out a yell that “nearly raised the roof,” chanting “C-A-R” (with the dean’s permission of course). Then, the men “literally jumped and fell down the stairs and out on the campus,” travelling as a pack to the home of Frederick Hill and Deborah Sayles. Upon arrival, more cheers were given for the family and the new gymnasium. At that point, the class bell had already rang “but college spirit was too high to notice such a small matter as this.” Consequently, students marched down to town “where the citizens of Northfield were forcefully informed that there was an overabundance of joy in the region of Carleton College.” This story clearly demonstrates the excitement surrounding the construction of a new gymnasium as the students paraded around town while cheering for the construction of the eighth building on campus. In fact, according to the January 28, 1909 issue of the Carletonian, “a new gym has been the dream of every Carleton man since he came to this college. And now the dreams are to be realized.”  

Once the announcement was made, it was time for the trustees to vote on the construction. They too shared in the eagerness and passion for a new athletic facility, and Skinner, unfortunately sick, even voted from his bed, contributing 1,000 of the 20,000 dollars needed for the extra costs. This exemplifies how not only students, but the school as a whole, felt the desire for a new men’s gymnasium. 

Sayles-Hill was built by William O’Neil & Son of Faribault and designed by Jerome Paul Jackson of Minneapolis in the American Renaissance style, totaling about $50,000. Built with sand-mould brick and Bedford stone trimmings, Sayles-Hill matched the look of Laird Hall, built in 1905. The interior of the two story gymnasium was constructed with gray sandstone and lime brick. The main gym (60×125 feet) featured a running track on the upper level with twenty-one laps to a mile. Sayles-Hill’s main gym floor was one of the only gyms in Minnesota specially designed for basketball, hosting its first game on January 21, 1910. Carleton’s new gymnasium was also the birthplace of the Minnesota high school basketball state championship tournament, hosting it until 1923. In the basement there was a small pool (25×60 feet), batting cages, and locker rooms. It is important to note the location was chosen as it was accessible to Laird Stadium, another hub of athletic activity at Carleton. 

As with the completion of most buildings on campus, Carleton wanted to celebrate the move into a new era, having a cornerstone laying ceremony and a dedication day. The cornerstone was laid on June 8, 1909 at 4:00 PM where the Glee Club performed, scripture was read, there were several addresses, and of course, Frederick B. Hill laid the cornerstone. The cornerstone was dedicated 

to the glory of God and for the upbuilding of Carleton men in body and soul, in the name of Him who is the perfect type of manhood and the inspirer of every noble endeavor. We lay this cornerstone in grateful memory of [their parents] Fredrick Clark Sayles, Deborah Cook Sayles and Grace Janette Hill, that this building here being erected may ever encourage and foster stalwart, virile and Christ-like manhood among the students of Carleton College.”

This dedication speaks to the role of religion on campus, as God is attributed as the inspiration for all good, the giver of success, and the role model for all Carleton students. Deposited in the cornerstone were several pictures, including various ones of the Sayles-Hill family, images of Edward Strong, Sallmon, President-Elect Cowling, William H Laird (president of board of trustees), and Lucian W. Chaney (professor and founder of Carleton athletics). Also contained were the Algol of 1909, a 1909 Carleton booklet published by the Athletic Union and Debating Board, 1909 Catalog, 1909 commencement program, a report of Sallmon’s administration, a picture of the Mon-Da-Min club, coins of 1909, copies of the Northfield Independent and News, and lastly, the order of exercises for the laying of the cornerstone. According to legend, gullible freshmen were convinced that the date on the cornerstone, A.D. MCMIX, was the architect’s name. 

The gymnasium was dedicated on January 26, 1910 at 2:30 PM. Sprinkled throughout the ceremony were performances from the Glee Club and the Carleton Band, separated by various speeches and prayers. In fact, there was a “prayer of dedication” and an address by Ozora S. Davis, the President of the Chicago Theological Seminary, again highlighting the religious culture of the campus during the early twentieth century. Luther A. Weigle also spoke, declaring why he believed the gymnasium would meet the school’s immediate needs. According to a June 10, 1909 issue of The Carletonian, he argued it “would do for the body what the buildings were already doing for the mind,” in fostering the development of the well-rounded liberal arts male student. Secondly, he proclaimed that in order to do one’s best spiritually, they also need to be in the best physical condition. Lastly, he felt as though Sayles-Hill would be a place for “unified college action,” fostering unprecedented college spirit in the history of Carleton, eventually creating the well-rounded man all students would become. 

As the name indicates, Sayles-Hill was indeed used as an athletic space, but also served as a cultural center on campus, as it does today. Sayles-Hill was utilized as a banquet hall for commencement luncheons, alumni dinners, athletic celebrations, and gatherings for the Northfield community. In addition, Sayles-Hill held many informal dances, known as sock dances during WWII, the “all-college circus,” and the more formal annual Washington’s Birthday Ball. Many of these dances had themes such as “Arctic Heaven,” decorated with icebergs and igloos, or “Hawaiian Paradise,” featuring a moonlit beach scene at Waikiki. The gymnasium was also a concert venue for groups such as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and singers like Nat Towles and Cab Calloway. On the academic side, Sayles-Hill was used for class registration. It was also used as a location for Red Cross blood drives, as a May Fete rain location, dance and theater performances on a temporary platform stage, and water ballet in the pool. Even the faculty used the gymnasium as the Faculty Men’s Club got together to play games against each other and the students. In 1936, the College’s Health Services were moved to the south part of the first floor where they conducted physical examinations and provided for the health of the students. The doctor was connected to varsity athletics, physical education classes, and the student body as a whole as they acted as a physician and professor. Overall, Sayles-Hill was and continues to be a gathering spot on Carleton’s campus, previously described as “a godsend in the recreational, social, and cultural areas of campus life.”