Rec Hall: The Heartbeat of Happy Valley
There you stand, just 200 yards south of the Nittany Lion Inn and right across Curtin Road from the Nittany Lion Shrine. Perhaps we should call you “Nittany Lion Coliseum,” but you’ve never been one for putting on airs.
Your official name is “Recreation Building,” but you humbly answer to “Rec Hall.” You opened with a lovely Colonial Georgian design on Jan. 15, 1929, but these days -- after accepting various additions and facades -- you look like Early American Patchwork.
That’s all right, my dear Rec Hall. Don’t think about all the times you’ve been belittled, as in the recently-released 20-year plan for Penn State’s athletic facilities. It appears that many new buildings will be built and many existing facilities that are younger than you will be renovated or improved -- Beaver Stadium, Jeffrey Field, Beard Field, Lasch Football Building. But unless we missed something in the fine print, you will get nothing but a pat on the head and best wishes for a continued long life.
Don’t worry, Recreation Building, if people harshly compare you to that newfangled basketball arena near Beaver Stadium. Sure, you only seat some 6,500 fans while Bryce Jordan has room for 15,261. But no modern building could ever replace the memories you’ve stockpiled during the last nine decades. You’ve provided drama by hosting NCAA national championships in boxing, gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling. You’ve entertained us with comedians and musical acts of all kinds. You’ve broadened our international awareness by welcoming Olympic-caliber gymnasts from Switzerland, Bulgaria, Russia and Japan. And you’ve challenged our perspectives by exposing us to important leaders like Martin Luther King.
As for athletics, you’ve delivered more than your share of victories. Yes, you may be old and you may be small, but you’re a consistent winner — a claim that can’t yet be made by BJC. Of course, it helps your record to host such mighty PSU teams as women’s volleyball, men’s volleyball and wrestling, but there’s no denying that your friendly confines help to produce Ws.
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Even the most diehard Nittany Lion fans may be oblivious to certain aspects of Rec Hall’s charm, especially if they hurry to grab the best seats when they enter the building. But for those who can spare a few minutes, the hallways around the main gym are loaded with treasures.
The team photos that are arrayed in the hallways are worth studying, especially the oldest ones that are mounted in the northeast corner of the building. The oldest of the old is a picture of the 1866 Penn State baseball team. Yes, that’s just one year after the Civil War ended. Most of the nine players in that photo are wearing bowler hats, and one man has his head buried in a book — a true student-athlete. Nearby is a photo of the 1887 football team with just 11 players and two men who must have been their coaches. No, they don’t look anything like the coaches of today, unless you somehow mistake their formal stovetop hats for Bill Belichick’s hoodies.
The south hallway of Rec Hall boasts reminders of more recent thrills, especially for those who love Penn State wrestling. One display case shows off David Taylor’s 2012 and 2014 Dan Hodge trophies (wrestling’s equivalent to the Heisman). Another case contains the 2016 Big 10 and NCAA national championship trophies. Although we know the 2017 Big 10 hardware will never be housed in Rec Hall, we are hoping the 2017 NCAA award will make its home there, if the Lion grapplers can overcome the absence of injured freshman Nick Suriano at this weekend’s tournament.
A photo of the 1866 Penn State baseball team is showcased in the hallway of Rec Hall. Photo by Bill Horlacher.
A SECOND HOME FOR TEENAGERS
Not only has Rec Hall provided rich memories for Penn Staters, but it has helped keep local youth off the streets. As I used to tell my friends who grew up elsewhere, “Every kid from State College knows 30 ways to sneak into Rec Hall.”
Sadly, in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, Rec Hall is now buttoned down tightly and a new card-swipe security system was just inaugurated several days ago. All of this is completely understandable, and I would never utter a word of criticism toward Penn State officials for protecting these young people from potential harm. But it is a sad function of our current reality that kids cannot get into Rec Hall to shoot hoops or run around the track. As a recent Penn State statement put it, “Anyone under the age of 18 will no longer be permitted into any campus recreation buildings unless they are a Penn State student or enrolled in an approved Penn State program, such as swimming lessons or sports camps.”
Almost any sports figure who was raised in Centre County has warm memories of Rec Hall. Here is a sampling of three:
• Jeff Byers played high school football at State High, earned a Penn State degree in broadcast communications and now serves as the radio voice of Penn State wrestling. Says Byers, "Going to Rec Hall with my Dad — whether it was to watch a wrestling match or a basketball game or to play racquetball or shoot hoops or go into the sauna to see who could last the longest — all of that stuff was special."
• Mike Archer played football, basketball and baseball at State High before accepting a football scholarship to the University of Miami. He has worked in a number of prestigious roles including head coach at LSU and linebacker coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Says Archer, "As a kid, I remember sneaking into basketball games, sneaking into gymnastics meets and sneaking into wrestling matches. State College High School didn't have an open gym, so we played basketball there all the time. With football, we were able to work out there in the summer — to throw the football, run the track and run the bleachers. Rec Hall was the place where all the State College athletes could go to better themselves."
• Ron Pifer was a two-time state wrestling champ at Bellefonte High School and a three-time All-American at Penn State. He served as head wrestling coach at State High and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Says Pifer, "I would work out at the high school and then in the evening go to Penn State and play racquetball or handball or wrestle. Rec Hall was like a second home to me. I feel bad that (kids) can't still have that relationship with Rec Hall."
A FEW UNIQUE MEMORIES
As for me, I make no claim to sports greatness, but that doesn’t minimize my desire to heap a little recognition on the old Rec. It’s fair to say that Penn State’s Recreation Building has always been there for me.
It all started with my dad, Marty Horlacher, Penn State Class of 1941. He filled my mind and heart with stories from Rec Hall — of good guys who wore blue and white; of bad guys who wore blue and gold. I can’t even guess how many times he described his favorite way to spend a Saturday night at Penn State. “Three sports in one night, all in Rec Hall,” he would say. “It started with wrestling at 6, then there was basketball at 8, followed by boxing at 10. That was one exciting night!”
As a kid, I would often sit beside Dad at wrestling matches (“Why are they always eating oranges?”) or basketball games (“What’s a zone defense?”). But as I emerged into adolescence, I developed my own Rec Hall patterns. Pickup basketball with my buddies, especially during Christmas vacation. Attending concerts and special events. Even my annual purchase of Penn State football tickets involved a trip to the athletic office in Rec Hall. Can you believe we could buy a season ticket (five home games) for exactly $5? That’s right, a buck per game to sit in the bleachers behind Beaver Stadium’s south end zone, all courtesy of the friendly folks in Rec Hall.
Eventually, graduation rolled around, and that meant another trip or two to my favorite gym. First, in June of 1970, I joined 500-plus classmates as we accepted our State High diplomas on a stage at Rec Hall. Then, in March of 1974, I commenced again in Rec Hall, but this time I was grabbing a bachelor’s degree from Penn State in journalism.
After all the years that have passed, you might think Rec Hall’s grip on me would have diminished. But why should it? Where else could I enjoy my favorite workout (playing racquetball), watch my favorite women’s sport (volleyball as coached by Russ Rose) and root for my favorite male sport (wrestling as directed by Cael Sanderson)? As for the latter, I think Penn State’s dynasty will last for a while, regardless of this weekend’s outcome. How could things get any better than this: Cael recruits Mark Hall, a six-time Minnesota high school champion, and the true freshman has already acquired the nickname of “Wreck Hall?”
Perhaps when my life ends in God’s good timing, I should be laid to rest in Rec Hall. No, I’m not trying to be strange or morbid. But if the British feel okay with the burial of folks in Westminster Abbey, why couldn’t our university inter its alumni in this dignified athletic cathedral? Of course, nothing is free at Penn State these days, and I certainly don’t have enough money to purchase such a permanent seat license. But hey, if knowledge is power, then maybe an idea like this is worth something to the Nittany Lion Club. Anything to remain close to the action. And in Happy Valley, that means Rec Hall.