The Early Years
President Edward Miner Gallaudet stressed in his 1878 annual report to Congress the need for an athletic facility. Congress appropriated funds sufficient to lay the foundation and it was designed by famed architect Frederick Withers. Additional funds from Congress were provided and the gymnasium was completed in 1881 for a total of $14,000.
The gymnasium housed exercise apparatus, a bowling alley and possibly the nation's first indoor swimming pool. It was built entirely out of wood, upon a masonry base.
The gymnasium soon became the social heart of the campus—a place for games and dances, young love, secret rites, and freshman hazing. The second-floor exercise room, with its soaring 32-foot ceiling, was year after year decorated as a ballroom with decorations including plants and vines. At some point the building was nicknamed 'Ole Jim, as a play on the sound of the word 'gym'.
When basketball became a popular sport, a women's team was organized in 1896 (the men didn't organize a team until 1904!). However, the upper level proved barely large enough for a regulation court. The exercise apparatus was removed, the interior walls boarded up, basketball goals added, and balconies were erected for spectators. The bowling alley, along one side of the building on the first floor, was taken over for exercise and wrestling. In 1909 the outside walls were covered with stucco to provide insulation.
Hundreds of students swam and shivered in the unheated pool, played on the 'Ole Jim basketball courts, exercised in its halls, and attended a variety of social activities on into the first half of the twentieth century.
Increased student enrollment in the 1940's and 1950's made "Ole Jim" inadequate as an athletic facility. While the upper level and old bowling alley continued to be used for wrestling, exercise classes, and intramural sports, a nearby high school gymnasium served much of Gallaudet's physical education needs until 1958 when the new Hughes Memorial Gymnasium was completed.
In the 1950's the swimming pool was filled in and covered, and temporary walls were erected on the first floor (over the filled-in pool) for faculty offices. The one-time bowling alley became Gallaudet's first snack bar and a popular hangout spot where students and faculty could have conversations over a cup of coffee.
When the faculty moved into larger and more comfortable offices in the new Hall Memorial Building in 1959, the Print Shop took over the first floor of 'Ole Jim where they remained until 1966. The old gymnasium then became a receiving station for supplies and equipment and eventually was just a storage facility.
As 'Ole Jim aged and deteriorated from neglect, there was talk of tearing it down and erecting a new building on its site. Albert Hlibok, a deaf construction consultant went before the GUAA Board of Directors and the University president in 1964 with a plea not to demolish this " rare example of Queen Anne style architecture." A young student of architecture from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore had visited the campus for his thesis on university buildings and, like Hlibok, he also made a forceful plea for retaining and restoring 'Ole Jim, as it was the only remaining physical education facility built in Washington, D.C. in the 19th century.
The Restoration – 1980
Gallaudet President Edward C. Merrill, Jr. organized an appeal that persuaded the U.S. Department of the Interior to designate the 'Ole Jim and other original buildings as an historic district. 'Ole Jim, thus saved from demolition, was found to be structurally sound and adaptable for modern use.
In the meantime, in 1968, the Alumni Associations established the Alumni House Fund for the purpose of building a dedicated Alumni gathering place. In 1978 it was decided that the 'Ole Jim should be restored and become the Alumni House—a perfect fit for the building that had been the home for so many wonderful memories in the past. The University, alumni, and friends set about raising the remaining $1.3 million needed to bring 'Ole Jim back to life. With a $237,000 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Interior and a $150,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation, restoration began in 1980 when 'Ole Jim was just one year short of being 100 years old.
Under the leadership of Gallaudet alumni—co-chaired by the Peikoffs (David, '29 and Polly Nathanson, E-'36) and the Crammattes (Alan, '32 and Flo Bridges, '35)—an additional $400,000 was raised for the restoration work. An Alumni House Maintenance Fund was also established with a goal of $300,000, which was achieved in 1987. Interest from its fund will ensure perpetual maintenance of 'Ole Jim.
When removing the exterior stucco, the walls were found to be intact but deteriorated and the stained glass windows were also in bad shape. The windows were replaced with reproductions of the original stained glass. The building was completely insulated and new heating, plumbing, and electrical systems were installed. Work was completed early in 1982 and 'Ole Jim was opened on June 25, 1982 during the 31st Triennial Reunion of the Gallaudet University Alumni Association. In 1995, the building was named Peikoff Alumni House to honor the commitment of Dave and Polly Peikoff.
The Restoration – 2007
Time continued to take its toll on this historic building and in 2007 the Peikoff Alumni House was closed as it underwent extensive renovation which included replacing the wooden siding, careful cleaning of the stained glass windows, reinforcement of the foundation, and a redesign of the first floor layout. The building now more accurately reflects the historical feel of the building while incorporating modern architectural features (including Deaf Space concepts) to improve climate control and lighting issues. The first floor welcomes visitors with an open and inviting lobby. Along with offices and workspace for Alumni Relations staff and volunteers there is also a large conference room which features an exposed glimpse of the original swimming pool wall. Upstairs the old basketball court retains its charming ambiance with its exposed beams, stained glass windows and graffitied brick chimney. The upper level is a large flexible meeting space that is used for a variety of purposes including dinners and banquets, wedding receptions, parties, and conferences.