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Houston Field House

Houston Field House is the name of the multi-purpose arena/venue on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York. It is the second oldest arena in the ECAC Hockey League behind Princeton University's Hobey Baker Memorial Rink. Until the opening of the Times Union Center in Albany in 1990, it was the largest arena in the Capital Region.

Origins

Popular legend holds that Houston Field House was previously an airplane or dirigible hangar for the United States armed forces during World War II. In reality, it originated as a warehouse for the United States Navy in Davisville, Rhode Island.

Following the war, the federal government established the Veterans Education Facilities Program (VEFP) to help colleges build facilities to handle the increased enrollment of veterans returning from the war. One aspect of the VEFP was to offer buildings designated as "war surplus" to colleges and academic institutions who applied for them.

Originally, the RPI Board of Trustees, led by then-RPI President Dr. Livingston W. Houston, sought a hangar from the VEFP in order to establish a "sports-civic arena" for the RPI campus and the city of Troy. Unfortunately, hangars were not considered "war surplus." An investigation sponsored by the Board of Trustees discovered the warehouse facility in Rhode Island and applied under the VEFP to bring it to campus, despite the fact that its original design was not satisfactory for the creation of an arena.

The VEFP underwrote both the cost of transporting the warehouse from Davisville to Troy and the cost to reassemble it upon its arrival. RPI, however, spent nearly $500,000 on its own to redesign the warehouse to its own specifications, including the re-fabrication of initial materials and the purchase of new materials.

Construction was originally planned to be completed by June 1948, however, inclement weather throughout the project pushed completion back 16 months to October 1949. On October 13, Houston officially opened the building as the RPI Field House as part of a ceremony honoring the Institute's 125th anniversary.

Early history

A month later, on November 12, 1949, the RPI Field House hosted its first event, an Interfraternity Ball, with music performed by Elliot Lawrence and his Orchestra. On December 3, 1949, the first sporting event in the Field House's history took place as RPI defeated the New York State Maritime Academy 55-43 in basketball.

A large impetus for the construction of the Field House was to create a home for the school's ice hockey team, which had played its first games in 1901 at Van Schaick Pond in nearby Cohoes, NY, and later played in various other locations in Cohoes and Albany, NY. From 1912 to 1938 (with the exception of 1937), the team played on an outdoor rink built every winter on campus along Sage Avenue, at the current location of Anderson Field. After the 1938 season, the team went into hiatus. Houston, an RPI alumnus who played hockey for RPI during his school years, originally sought to build the Field House as a means of returning hockey to campus. On January 10, 1950, the "Engineers" under legendary head coach Ned Harkness played their first game at home since 1938, dropping an 8-2 contest to Middlebury. However, and possibly thanks largely in part to the construction of the Field House, Harkness would lead the Engineers to an NCAA championship only four years later in 1954.

Two weeks after the first hockey game, the RPI Field House hosted its first commencement ceremony, on January 27, 1950. General Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave the first commencement address.

On December 27, 1951, the Field House hosted the first annual RPI Invitational Tournament. The first tournament featured 8 schools playing 12 games over three days, and was won by Brown University. The following year, the tournament was cut to 4 teams playing a round-robin schedule over 3 days, which remained the tournament's format until 1982, when it gained a 2nd-day consolation game/championship game format. Today the RPI Invitational is the nation's oldest in-season invitational tournament in college hockey.

Throughout the 1950s, several RPI sporting events were held at the RPI Field House, including basketball, tennis, wrestling, and even pistol and rifle shooting.

In March 1959, the Field House hosted the NCAA tournament known today as the Frozen Four. North Dakota won its first of several NCAA championships, defeating Michigan State, Boston College, and St. Lawrence. Three of the tournament's four games went into overtime.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the RPI Field House was often referred to as "The Madison Square Garden of Upstate New York". In its first two decades, it played host to more than 300 theatrical and musical events, countless hockey games, and several commencement ceremonies.

Hockey Line

As the popularity of hockey grew, tickets became hot items among students. Owing to its origins as a military warehouse, most views were obstructed at at least some angle between the rink and the seats due to large support columns that held up the Field House's roof. This led to the birth of what is known simply as "hockey line." Groups of people - usually members of various fraternities and sororities - take a place outside of the RPI Student Union building. Traditionally, the line began sometime during late July or early August prior to the beginning of Fall classes and continued until tickets went on sale in mid-September. People in line are allowed to buy up to eight tickets and can have people hold their place in line while they eat or go to class. Students set up beds, couches, television sets, and, more recently, computers and video games to pass the time as someone occupies each place in line on a 24 hour basis.

Following the Engineers' 1985 national championship victory, the Epsilon Iota chapter of the Psi Upsilon fraternity set a hockey line record by beginning the line on the very next day - March 31, 1985 - and continuing the line through the summer until tickets went on sale on September 25, 1985 — besting the previous record of 33 days with 178 days.

Renovation and rejuvenation

In 1978, a new tradition started that continues today - the annual Big Red Freakout! event. This event fills the Field House with thousands of screaming fans, and there is a giveaway each year.

Following Houston's death later that year, the Institute announced at the 1978 Commencement ceremonies that the RPI Field House would be known as Houston Field House in honor of Livingston W. Houston, president of RPI from 1943 to 1958.

1983 brought several changes to the Field House. The Institute spent $2.5 million to renovate the building during the summer, including a support renovation which allowed the removal of all but four of the columns which had given rise to "hockey line." New scoreboards were installed, and the ice surface was lengthened to a full NHL size. In 1984, the NCAA tournament returned to Houston Field House for the first time since 1959 as the Engineers took on North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux, coming in as heavy underdogs, upset the homestanding Engineers on consecutive nights, ending the Engineers national title hopes. The next season, the Field House would host its final two NCAA tournament games as RPI dispatched Lake Superior State on their way to their second NCAA championship. Today's NCAA tournament games all take place at neutral ice sites with a minimum capacity higher than that of the Field House.

During the mid-1980s, Houston Field House was part of a vibrant boxing scene in the Capital District. Mike Tyson fought twice at the venue in 1986, but Tyson's rise to the heavyweight championship at the end of the year helped lead to a decline, and boxing has not been featured at Houston Field House in recent years.

The 1987 Big Red Freakout! event featured plastic horns as the giveaway. These horns made Houston Field House reverberate with noise - so much noise, in fact, that the evening's opponent, Brown, filed a complaint with the NCAA. In turn, this led to the creation of what is today known as "the RPI rule" nationwide, which prohibits fans from bringing artificial noisemakers into NCAA events.

In 1990, the New York Islanders of the NHL moved their primary minor-league team to Houston Field House, naming them the Capital District Islanders. "CDI" played in the American Hockey League from 1990 to 1993. In 1993, the Capital District Islanders withdrew from the AHL, and became the Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the International Hockey League. The Albany River Rats moved into town to play at the Knick/Pepsi/Times Union Center, as the former Utica Devils from the AHL.

The RPI women's hockey team, a club team beginning in 1976, hosted the AWCHA national women's club championship at Houston Field House in 1994, winning the national championship, and in 1995, when they finished in 3rd. The team became a varsity program later that year, and joined their male counterparts in NCAA's Division I in 2005.

During the 1998-1999 hockey season, a new four-sided scoreboard was added to the center of the Field House, replacing the scoreboards on the eastern and western walls.

Houston Field House today

Today, the Houston Field House seats 5,217 for hockey games, the largest capacity in the ECAC Hockey League. Its modern function is primarily as a home for the RPI men's and women's hockey teams to compete and practice, though several skating clubs also call the Field House home. The Capital District Selects of the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL) also practice and compete at Houston Field House.

Houston Field House also hosts two to three concerts every year. Before the opening of the Times Union Center in Albany it was the Capital District's main venue for concerts. Recent guests have included The Offspring, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, John Mayer, moe., Counting Crows, Matchbox Twenty, Guster and O.A.R..

Since the Field House's opening, the Institute has opened several other venues for athletic teams to play in, and today is used only by the hockey teams among the 21 other varsity sports offered at RPI. This decrease in activity allowed the Institute's intramural hockey program to utilize the Field House. Also, with the increase in enrollment, the Field House now no longer serves as the primary location for Commencement ceremonies. Today, the ceremonies are held at next-door Harkness Field. Houston Field House is considered the emergency venue, last holding ceremonies on May 18, 2002 when a freak overnight spring snowstorm forced the ceremony indoors from what had been planned to be Harkness Field's first ceremony. Rensselaer at Hartford alumnus Dennis Tito gave the commencement address. Ironically, what may have initially prompted moving commencement out of the Field House was its lack of air conditioning, as the May, 1989 commencement was shortened because of the near-90 degree heat and stifling temperatures inside the arena.

Today's "hockey line" is a shadow of what it was during its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. With the number of obstructed view seats now at a minimum, it is no longer necessary to stay on line for weeks to ensure good seats. When the Student Union itself was renovated in the late 1990s, the hockey line all but died completely. Today, the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity tends to start the line every year in early September, and most other fraternities join the line a day or two before tickets go on sale. When it was a more major local concert venue in the 1970s and 1980s, one would frequently see lines for those tickets as well. In a usual occurrence in 1985, tickets for a joint Night Ranger/Jefferson Starship concert were to go on sale the morning after a Howard Jones concert commenced, so many people attending the concert went on line right after to wait for the ticket booth to open. As Howard Jones left his concert, he noticed the fans waiting outside in the 35-degree cold and asked what was going on. To show support he offered to sign autographs for everyone on the line.

Notable features in the Field House today include the Rensselaer Alumni Association display at the entrance to the arena, which features RPI hockey players who have been named All-Americans and those who have played in the NHL. On the eastern side of the Field House is a stage, upon which "America's Pep Band" plays during hockey games. On the western wall of the Field House, centered by the seal of the Institute, are six banners honoring the men's team's NCAA championships in 1954 and 1985, their ECAC championships in 1984, 1985, and 1995, and a banner honoring the women's club team's AWCHA national championship of 1994.

On November 5, 2004, RPI began its "Ring of Honor" at Houston Field House by unveiling a banner honoring Adam Oates and his number 12. Oates' banner was joined on November 12, 2005 by one recognizing number 9, Joé Juneau.

As part of a major campus improvement project to build the East Campus Athletic Village, the Houston Field House will undergo several renovations starting in 2007. These include the renovations of the locker rooms, addition of a new weight room, and a new special reception room dedicated to Ned Harkness. Additionally, as part of the renovations, solar panels were added installed on the roof to supply power to the building through a government grant.

References

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