What Stephen Van Rensselaer founded in 1824 would hardly be recognizable to us today. For one thing, it started as the Rensselaer School, becoming Rensselaer Institute in 1832. It was not until 1861 that it was renamed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Another difference was that during the entire 19th century, RPI was tiny. A total of 176 students had graduated by 1842 (an average of 10 each year). By 1850, enrollment was up to 53, and 221 in 1901. Even during the first half of the 20th century, total enrollment crept up to just over 1,000. After WWII, it jumped four-fold, and RPI has remained the same magnitude ever since.
The campus changes are even more startling. Two separate fires altered the course of the school, with RPI rising bigger and better like a pheonix from the ashes. RPI started in an old bank building in north Troy. In 1844, they relocated to downtown, in another second-hand building, the so-called “Infant School.” Troy’s Great Fire of 1862 destroyed the building, along with hundreds of others.
But by this time RPI had grown prosperous enough to afford a new building, constructed at the head of Broadway on the west side of Eighth Street. With daring originality, they labeled it the “Main Building.” Next to this, they added a laboratory named after the president at the time, John Flack Winslow. Winslow was one of two Troy citizens during the Civil War who helped get financing for the iron-clad Monitor, a significant advance in ship-building. (Some of the parts for the Monitor were cast in south Troy.)
Twenty years later, in 1886, an ornate but miniscule gymnasium was added. It must have been cramped, since the Class of 1887, the first students to use it, eventually dug deep into their own pockets to finance a much bigger facility in 1912. The original gym became the first playhouse for the RPI Players in 1929, torn down in 1966.
In 1904, fire intervened once again. Both the Main and Winslow laboratory burned within a month of each other. Winslow was rebuilt, and although vacant, still stands as the oldest existing of the original RPI buildings. (West Hall is older, but was originally a hospital.)
The Main building was a total loss. With little left to hold them, RPI strongly considered moving out of Troy. Instead, the school purchased the 10-acre estate of Walter Phelps Warren just up the hill and began adding buildings on the east side of Eighth Street. The Approach was built on the site of the Main building.