It’s finally time to tear down Towne

Jackson Davis

The Towne Field House was a hub of activity at the College. Each week, more than a dozen student groups would use the space to come together, practice, and compete. From ultimate frisbee practices to soccer scrimmages to Williams Outing Club bouldering sessions — not to mention the various varsity practices — the space was constantly busy from early November through spring break. 

The recent closing of the field house is a blow to a large proportion of the College community who often rely on its space, but it also presents an opportunity to modernize an underdeveloped, decaying facility and avoid a missguided repair. Instead of making renovations, the College should tear down Towne and accelerate its plans for replacement.

Athletic department staff and athletes have pleaded for a Towne Field House replacement for years. When it was built in 1970, the track team had only four to six members, less than five percent of its current roster, not to mention groups like the softball team that didn’t even exist yet. Despite the expansion of demands placed on the facility, Towne has not adapted to fit the needs of its ever-growing community. 

The track itself is undersized. Its entirety would fit comfortably within the smallest lanes of those belonging to many NESCAC rivals like Colby, Middlebury, and Tufts. The innermost lane of a standard indoor track is 200 meters, while Towne’s longest lane doesn’t even reach that. This prevents Williams from hosting indoor meets or allowing spectators. The small space also means sacrifices for every group in the field house. Fall from the bouldering wall? You’re likely to fall into the long jump pit and leave with a shoe full of sand. Want to run around the track? You better practice dodging tennis balls.

The surface, composed of a concrete block beneath little more than a quarter inch of rubber, leads to avoidable injuries for field house users. Soccer team members deal with tendonitis in their knees while practicing indoors, and softball players nurse back injuries from the unforgiving floor. Sprinters on the track team rarely run on the floor, instead utilizing treadmills, which minimize impact on their shins, knees, and hips to avoid injury.

Rebuilding Towne has already been established as a part of the new strategic plan. However, this project has no completion date or timeline. In light of the recent shutdown, the College has two options: repair Towne to render it usable for a few years before the proposed rebuilding or tear it down and build a new field house now. 

The structural repair route has multiple glaring flaws. Notably, Towne has a poor history with incremental capital renewals, and this project shows no sign of being any different. Recall the four-week field house closure in 2018 to resurface the track. That supposedly simple project took far longer and reportedly ran far over budget. In the end, it also did little to address athletes’ injuries from the surface. 

When climbing team members noticed the climbing wall shifting in March, facilities found a structural beam was rotting. It is likely that extensive repairs would uncover even more issues. Additionally, due to the damage found in Towne already, a simple repair seems impractical. Of course, we should wait for a full report by the College’s engineers, but a problem of this magnitude could easily command millions of dollars and take years to properly fix. That’s an expensive Band-Aid for the field house we are planning on replacing in the next few years. 

The best option for the students, both current and future, is to start replacing the field house now. In the long-term, a new field house would be cheaper, safer, and more time-effective. The College could have a new field house in the next few years, better serving the community who regularly uses the facility. Starting soon would also eliminate the additional, and significant, time and money spent on stop-gap repairs. 

While rebuilding Towne carries a large upfront cost, the College is in a strong position to overcome that. The development office is set to complete fundraising for the new Williams College Art Museum this summer, leaving capacity for a new project. 

To support fundraising, the College should also remove donation restrictions for the project. Donors to replace Towne should not be required to match their donations 1:1 to the general pool, since it will dissuade donors who want to see the full impact of their giving. With no requirement to match, it would be easier to raise capital for this project.The recent $1 million donation to support fixes to the field house demonstrates that alums already appreciate the field house’s importance and want to help replace it — the College just has to make it easier for them to help. 

However, if a full replacement is still infeasible, another option is to remove the roof and put a bubble around the track. While the Towne Field House may need to be rebranded to the Towne Field Bubble, this project would be cost effective, allow community access by next fall, and allow planning and fundraising time for the new facility. The bubble could later be repurposed over one of the College’s turf fields to provide winter shelter when Towne is eventually replaced. Since the replacement will require both removing the roof and temporary housing for the programs who use the field house, this option would be economical. 

While the unexpected closure of Towne puts the College in a bind, it also provides an opportunity for the College to act on a strategic goal it has held for years. Punting the rebuilding of Towne into the future doesn’t make sense. Given the history of Towne’s mismanagement, attempting to repair Towne’s structural issues runs the risk of unexpected cost and time escalation, and even the best case repair costs can be avoided by pushing up the replacement timeline. It’s time to tear down Towne. 

Jackson Davis ’25 is from New York, N.Y.