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Evolution of the Red Gym

How the Red Gym evolved from gymnasium to multicultural hub.

The Red Gym.

The UW’s Red Gym — slightly faded as years passed, but still noticeably red — has been a fixture on campus for more than a century. Constructed in 1894, the Armory and Gymnasium, as it’s officially named transformed from an actual athletic gym to a multicultural hub for students through a decades-long evolution.  

When the building opened, the Wisconsin State Journal called it “a splendid structure, admirably adapted to the many requirements which will be made upon it, and worthy of the great state which has furnished it for its greatest educational institution.” Despite decline as it grew older, and being firebombed by arsonists in 1970, the Red Gym has held up remarkably well throughout the test of time: it is still actively used today, and is known to all Badgers, young and old.  

Far gone are the days of Red Gym pools and workouts — nowadays, it houses the Multicultural Student Center (MSC). After a 1988 campus report called for a centrally located multicultural center for students of Afro-American, American Indian, Chicano, Asian American, and Puerto Rican descent, the MSC was born. Along with managing more than 50 affiliated student organizations, the MSC houses three cultural centers in the Red Gym: the Black Cultural Center, the Latinx Cultural Center, and the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Student Center. A fourth, the American Indian Student and Cultural Center, is housed outside of the Red Gym at 215 N. Brooks Street and managed by the American Indian Studies Program. 

Below are photos of the Red Gym, from military functions in the 1900s to multicultural student events today. 

Pictured here is the 1894 opening of the UW’s Armory and Gymnasium. The architect who designed the Red Gym is also the designer of another famed campus building, Science Hall. Photo courtesy of UW Archives, S02368 

This photo, circa 1910, shows the UW military band in front of the Red Gym. The building was used for years for various military functions. Photo courtesy of UW Archives, S06258 

From the 1930s, this image shows a Wisconsin vs. Michigan hockey game played right outside the Red Gym. Students now watch those matches at the Kohl Center and LaBahn Arena. Photo courtesy of UW Archives, S17128 

This one might be unfamiliar to newer Badgers, but before the days of online registration, students had to sign up for classes in person. This photo from 1972 shows old-school fall registration in the gym. Photo courtesy of UW Archives, S00162 

To current students, this sight may be surprising: circa 1979, it’s a picture of when the Red Gym housed a poolPhoto courtesy of UW Archives, S16405 

The Red Gym has been home to the Multicultural Student Center for decades now: this is a picture from a 1999 concert in honor of the MSC’s 10th anniversary. Photo courtesy of UW Archives  

Students have long hosted and attended cultural events in the Red Gym, courtesy of the MSC. In this photo from 2004, a student poses with corn husk dolls made during an event there. Photo courtesy of UW Archives  

Many multicultural organizations reside in the Red Gym, once including the Wisconsin Black Student Union (WBSU). Now, the WBSU can be found on East Campus Mall. This image shows the executive board in the MSC, circa 2004. Photo courtesy of UW Archives  

The Red Gym’s interior has been revamped over the years. This picture from 2018 shows an alumna and student conversing in the new Black Cultural Center. Photo by Bryce Richter/UW–Madison. 

This is a photo from the 2018 Native November Feast, hosted in the Red Gym. Students here sing a traditional Indigenous welcome song. Photo by Bryce Richter/UW–Madison. 

The MSC hosts classes of interns each year, who have various roles throughout the Red Gym and on campus at large. Pictured here is the class from 2014-15. Photo courtesy of the Multicultural Student Center

This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly email newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.

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