Robbie Rockwell at Onward State wrote to a bunch of Penn State alumni recently, asking for memories of the ways in which State College has changed over the years. I didn’t write, but my friend Chris Buchignani did. After his time as a student in the late 1990s/early 2000s, he decided to settle in State College. I’m sharing a portion of what he shared with Onward State:
Town and campus have changed so much in the 20 years I have lived here, you wouldn’t believe it. Commercial development along the North Atherton corridor has exploded. Campus roads have been closed or rerouted (Pollock Road once connected to Atherton; Shortlidge once connected Pollock and Curtin). Countless new buildings have been constructed (including Business, Forestry, Architecture, Law, IST, Science, and Hockey). The HUB has been renovated and expanded twice. Rec Hall and the IM Building have been expanded. The new Schlow Library has been built. The State Theatre repurposed and reopened. A total overhaul of State College High School is rapidly progressing, while Memorial Field has been tinkered with more times than I can count. These are a fraction of the substantial changes, and they’ve all occurred over just the last two decades.
The guts of the Nittany Valley are timeless and ageless, but we get some plastic surgery practically every year.
What I want to know is what big changes have occurred on or off campus that were particularly surprising or upsetting to you?
I lived in Toftrees for several years and absolutely loved the proximity to nature and illusion of isolation offered by the dense woods up there. The amount of development in the last several years is absolutely heart-breaking to me, so much clear-cutting. There was a charming character to the place that is irreparably diminished.
Were there any places that you spent a lot of time at that were torn down for something new?
I definitely think of the short-lived roller hockey rinks along Bigler Road that lasted less than a decade after their construction before they were demolished to make way for Millennium. Lots of pick-up and league games were played there, and it was a shame to lose that resource.
While it was not demolished, I also feel compelled to pour one out for the Playland Arcade on College Avenue. A relic of a bygone era for sure, but also a long-time beloved hangout for students and townies alike where I once inexplicably spent $10 in quarters to beat CarnEvil. Here’s a fun short documentary that tells its story.
How do you feel about high rises being built downtown?
I have mixed feelings. I suspect, based on recent conversations, that some of my friends in The Nittany Valley Society feel more strongly than I do. While I think the process that got us to this point was basically a mess, I’m glad the Fraser Center is now a thing and not a giant hole surrounded by a dangerous, rusty fence. I am open to the new construction and think it has its place. I hope we’ll have the foresight to keep it to the periphery of the Downtown and not compromise the distinctive “college town” character of the main drag. That is a cultural resource for this place that could be mismanaged or squandered as surely as a natural resource.
What was a popular bar or restaurant that is no longer around?
For me, it’s the Sports Cafe (once known as the Sportscenter), home of Tears of the Lions wings and $2 Michelob Amber Bocks. It was located on the corner of College and Burrowes where Noodles & Company is today. Huge projection TVs inside, outside deck seating in the front, pool tables in the basement, and zero belief in capital reinvestment. It was great. I gathered with hundreds of fellow Penn Staters to share many great (and not so great) moments in sports. I’m a Cubs fan, so this October, I went to Noodles & Co the day after the Series and got my picture taken in the exact spot where I stood to watch the Steve Bartman play. The Gingerbread Man deserves a nod, and I assume Rotelli’s closing is still fresh in the local memory, so Sports Cafe is the one.
Are there any things that were torn down or renovated for the better; meaning were some places on campus just a pain to have to go to?
I never kept a car in Lot 80, but by all accounts, that is one campus change that no alumni will lament. If I’m not mistaken, Lot 80 was cleared out to make way for Katz and/or the Arboretum. The H.O. Smith Arboretum has been one of the nicest, most welcome additions to campus during my time here. It’s a great spot and keeps getting better. I hope they’ll get a planetarium soon.
I should also mention the studio facilities for The LION 90.7fm. The station was hidden away on the second floor of the Burrowes Building when I was a student and made the long-overdue move to the HUB (behind the fish tanks) in 2003. The new space in the HUB expansion is the best ever – it’s a tremendous resource for the organization, and I’m very appreciative of Dr. Sims and the Student Affairs leadership who prioritized that.
God willing, we will one day add Hammond Building to this list. it’s a truly miserable eyesore.
Can you think of any new editions to campus or downtown that you wish were there during your time at State?
Pegula. Easily. I had the extreme pleasure of getting to cover Icers hockey for The LION, and Coach Battista was exceedingly gracious with his time throughout. It was impossible to be around him and not feel the infectious passion he had for Penn State hockey and the dream of a top-flight varsity program. Many times I would sit in Greenberg as the crowd went wild and think, “What if this were a real arena, with ‘We Are’ chants going back and forth across the ice as we played Michigan or Ohio State?” It was a wild dream then, and I still can’t quite believe it’s become such a successful reality. I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the Roar Zone.
How do you feel about the lack of open space and large buildings being put in like the Milenium Science Complex?
I’m not sure lack of open space is problem, at least not yet. We still have the IM fields and the Arboretum, and being a local, I know that the Centre Region maintains a sprawling parks system that is relatively accessible to the student population. That said, I did experience some melancholy as I watched the Thomas Building expand and then the Millennium Science Complex cover over what were once open fields. I spent so many happy hours in college playing sandlot football games on Pollock Fields – one of my best memories. No future generations will get to make more of those, plus it’s a damn shame to see the site of one of my all-time favorite athletic accomplishments covered over (a brutal block to clear out the lane for a punt return touchdown – it was a thing of beauty).