Alive and Kicking
The newly rejuvenated Fontbonne Hall remains true to its historical intent: supporting women's health and wellness.
By Andy Steiner
Perched on the upper floors of Fontbonne Hall, the new Women's Health Integrative Research (WHIR) Center hums with activity as students and faculty run test subjects through their paces on clusters of treadmills and exercise bikes.
The walls of the center are covered with large photographs of women of all ages and sizes engaged in physical activity. But don't confuse WHIR with a fitness center. It actually is a state-of-the-art laboratory devoted to interdisciplinary research on women's health. In addition to motion-tracking equipment — such as a 3-D electromagnetic motion system, a metabolic measurement unit and a heart-rate monitoring system — WHIR also has a wet lab that supports the processing and storage of human blood and saliva samples.
It's one of few academic facilities of its kind. "The larger vision for the center involves overall health and wellness and investigations of daily activities, especially related to women," says Professor of Biology Marcie Myers, who co-directs the WHIR Center.
There could be no better home for WHIR than Fontbonne, a stately Arts and Crafts-style building constructed in 1931. Then-President Antonia McHugh, CSJ, dreamed of educating the "whole woman," producing graduates who were both physically and intellectually fit.
Originally known as the Health Center, the building was designed to be a hub of activity at the growing College of St. Catherine, then nearly three decades old. Though the nation teetered on the precipice of the Great Depression, somehow Mother Antonia managed to gather the nearly $300,000 needed to construct Fontbonne.
The multipurpose facility included classrooms, offices, housing, a large gymnasium with maple and walnut floors and electric-powered dividing walls, locker rooms, a bowling alley and medical offices. The pièce de résistance: a stunning Art Deco indoor swimming pool with large windows and ornate custom sconces and tile work.
The pool, then perhaps the finest in the city, was central to Mother Antonia's vision. All future classes of students were required to take swimming lessons there.
"It fascinates me that WHIR is located in a building that has such a long history of supporting women's health and wellness," says Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Science Mark Blegen, a co-director of WHIR. "I'm thrilled," he adds with a smile. "We couldn't be in a better space."
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Those were the days before Title IX, the groundbreaking legislation enacted in 1972 that required schools to provide equal access to athletics for girls and women. Schriver-Sheedy participated in noncompetitive "play days" sponsored by the Girls' Athletic Association (GAA). "Our opportunities were limited in high school," she recalls. "We had GAA, though. I did that diligently and loved it."
When it came time for Schriver-Sheedy to learn more about colleges, she was curious about attending St. Catherine. A visit to Fontbonne sealed the deal.
"I walked into the building and saw the gleaming basketball courts and the huge gymnasium with the windows that filled the room with sunlight," she recalls. "Then there was the pool. It was beautiful. I was thrilled to find out that a number of athletic teams were on campus and that I would be welcome to participate in any of them. From that point on, I was convinced that I was going to St. Kate's."
Suzy Hager Kennedy '57 began swimming in the Fontbonne pool when she was a student at Derham Hall, a Catholic girls' high school located on the St. Catherine campus.
"We thought that whole building was wonderful," Hager Kennedy says. "There were not that many indoor pools in St. Paul at that time, and nothing was quite as lovely. So we were very proud of St. Catherine and the facilities that were made available to us. When it came time for me to go to college, I never really considered going anywhere else."
After graduation, Schriver-Sheedy stayed on at St. Kate's, working as a counselor in the admission and financial aid offices, and later as head Wildcats basketball coach. Her memories of Fontbonne center on the lively energy that emanated from the place. Something was always going on.
"The atmosphere there on game days was incredible," Schriver-Sheedy recalls. "The gymnasium was a constant field of motion. Besides my dormitory, Fontbonne was my home away from home. And many other people on campus felt the same way. For us, it was the center of the action."
Women's colleges of the era worked hard to counteract the common belief that women were too "weak" to withstand the rigors of physical exertion. "Starting with Matthew Vassar, colleges for women almost went overboard to prove that they would take care of the physical and health needs of their students," says Allys Swanson, associate professor of exercise and sport science and former St. Catherine athletic director. "Healthy athletic activity was commonly required for all students at these institutions."
Alberta Huber '37, CSJ, president of St. Catherine when Swanson was athletic director, was another great champion of women's physical education.
"She was an amazing supporter of athletics at St. Kate's," Swanson says. "She'd come to the games and cheer us on. When she was president, students were required to take four semesters of physical education. Also, everyone had to take swimming and basketball. She supported the 'strong mind/strong body' philosophy, going all the way back to the Greek philosophers."
By the late 1970s, the athletic facilities at Fontbonne Hall were starting to feel outmoded.
With the passage of Title IX, larger coeducational institutions slowly began turning their attention — and their considerable financial assets — to bolstering women's athletics. Although St. Kate's at first had a leg up on the competition, women's teams from larger institutions began gaining ground.
Schriver-Sheedy's basketball team was nationally ranked two out of the five years she served as coach. "In 1977, we won the state title and advanced to the national-regional tournament," she says proudly. "Three years later the team received a bid to play again in the national-regional tournament after placing second in the state"
The Wildcats of that era practiced and competed at Fontbonne. At first, St. Kate's facilities outshone the competition. "Before Title IX, we had the best locker rooms, the best practice space," Schriver-Sheedy says. "Women's teams at many of the other schools didn't even have their own locker rooms. We'd have to use the men's. This was a real sense of pride for us coming from a college focused on women."
By the time the Aimee and Patrick Butler Center was built in 1994, growing athletic needs at St. Catherine made Fontbonne seem obsolete and aging. "The building didn't function for a lot of what we needed to do to have competitive sports teams here," Swanson concedes. "The physical shape and design of the building limited in some ways the number of sports that could be offered at the College."
The modern facilities at Butler Center have enabled the University to dramatically increase the number of athletic opportunities available to students. "When I came to St. Kate's in 1997, we were dramatically behind our competition in varsity athletics," says St. Catherine Athletic Director Eric Stacey. "Since Butler Center was built, we have added four varsity sports."
The Wildcats are again becoming a force to be reckoned with, he declares: "We have more than quadrupled our number of varsity athletes, and we have dramatically moved up in our conference." Plus, the University's recent investment in hiring a strong coaching staff has attracted top student-athletes. "Sports are on a roll here," he says, noting that the president's strategic plan calls for future expansion of Butler Center. "This can only strengthen St. Kate's."
The building is still structurally sound, says Jim Manship, director of facilities management. And the remodeling process — a months-long endeavor that included removing asbestos, demolishing walls and staircases, and, of course, constructing WHIR — proves that the University is committed to preserving the historic structure. "When I first got here, some people told me that Fontbonne should be torn down," Manship says. "But that's not happening. It's an important part of our history."
Schriver-Sheedy is glad to learn that Fontbonne is here to stay. She's even happier that the WHIR Center means the building will remain true to its roots.
"The Sisters' philosophy was to educate the woman fully of body and mind," she says. "Fontbonne Hall is a physical representation of that philosophy. It provided a foundation that has inspired me throughout my life. I'm a healthier woman because of it."
Andy Steiner is managing editor of SCAN.