Sunday, April 29, 2012

Memorial Student Center

Photo from Cody Green, used with permission.

This article was written with the assistance of the official MSC History, MyBCS posters, cody_green, early 1970s Aggieland yearbooks (concerning the early 1970s MSC history, of course) and Nicholas Roznovsky.

275 Joe Routt Blvd.

As readers of this blog may have noticed, this blog tends to focus on buildings (like, but not exclusively retail) that have changed in the area. There was a great "greenhouse" Kroger at Southwest Parkway and Texas Avenue went from being from a great example of that store type to being a generic dumpy Kroger. The H-E-B Pantry closed in 2002 and was replaced with a giant modern supermarket three times the size, which is cheap, clean, and has great selection and service but lacks the charm of the one it replaced. The Target lost its "90s neon" in the mid-2000s, and even the Wal-Mart became a Supercenter (though stayed in the same location). But the MSC though, that is a different story. However, it's not like the MSC had never changed: it had already gone through several incarnations, though the 2009-2012 renovation was the most extensive (and destructive). It is a neat building full of history: even if that "history" was wiped away in recent times and only paid lip service to.

The Memorial Student Center is unique--not unique in the name (Wheaton College, for instance, has a "Memorial Student Center") but the character of the building and what it represents. In spirit, at least, it's promoted as the hospitable part of A&M. The campus living room. The place to go for students new and old. The story of the building dates back to the old A&M College days. In the 1930s, most of the "social" activity on campus took place at the YMCA Building, (still around for the most part but having no connection with the actual YMCA anymore) which had, among other things, a bowling alley and swimming pool in the basement (please, no jokes about the February 2012 basement flooding), but the growing university needed a large, centralized place for student activity. From day one, it was meant to be a memorial to those who served in the war, initially the "Great War", and later, World War II. The architect of the MSC, Carleton Adams, went to seven student centers from Midwest universities to gather ideas, always a good idea to gather ideas to become the best there can be. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart did the same thing, and up until his death 1992 kept visiting discount stores of all types to perfect Wal-Mart. (Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing now). As part of the planning process (for the MSC, not Wal-Mart), Adams tossed around a few ideas, including "The Memorial" and "Gold Star Hall" (the latter having very somber roots).

The Original Memorial Student Center (1950-1971)

In 1947, the building, now known as the Memorial Student Center, began its groundbreaking, situated between Houston Street, Clark Street, Lamar Street, and what would be Joe Routt Boulevard by the 1950s, replacing several houses (professors lived on campus in those days). It was also across the street from Guion Hall, a beautiful example of Classical European-style architecture, which was going out of style as Modernism started to take hold. The MSC was one of these, and ushered in an era of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired buildings (the All-Faiths Chapel is another).

After three years, the building opened, dedicated to the fallen Aggies in World War II and World War I. I can't find the exact date of this opening: it was dedicated on 4/21/51, but according to the Battalion archives, it had been open for a few months prior, mentioning a bowling alley tournament as early as February 1951. The building actually had opened in September 1950.

The opening of the MSC was a huge deal to the university and the city of College Station, as for one it was one of the first air-conditioned buildings on campus, and the fact that it had ballrooms, a bowling alley, a barbershop, a dozen conference rooms, three dining rooms, a reading room (stocked with newspapers and magazines), a game room, and several retail tenants (a bookstore called the Exchange Store, hobbies and crafts, and even a cookie/candy counter, akin to what a department store at the time would have) Considering at this point America's first fully enclosed, climate-controlled regional mall was five years away, this was one of those "nothing else like it" buildings. I'm not sure what the "three dining rooms" was: I imagine that it wasn't for student use (people ate in Sbisa or Duncan), and for special events where a huge dining hall would not be appropriate.

Another feature of the MSC was a hotel on the second level, with 65 air-conditioned rooms. This replaced the on-campus Aggieland Inn (not related to the former Ramada that closed in 2011). However, the campus grew in the 1960s (accepting women, African Americans, and non-Corps members in the 1960s) and the MSC just wasn't adequate for Texas A&M anymore. The 1950s design had been outmoded, and it was time for change.

Memorial Student Center, the 1970s Version

Some of this information, added in October/November 2013, was derived from early 1970s Aggieland yearbooks.

Unlike the later remodel which would destroy most things lovable in the old MSC, the 1970s incarnation did not close the whole MSC, and rebuilt it in phases, starting in 1971. The nearby Guion Hall, however came down for the Rudder Tower and Rudder Theatre complex (1970s Brutalist architecture had taken charge by this time) at about that time.

During this time, the MSC was not called the MSC (a successful branding campaign later on), it was known as the "C".
When the MSC finished renovations in 1974, a new post office location (the Aggieland Post Office, officially, which used locks and keys instead of combinations), a cafeteria (or two?) and more bowling lanes. Another feature of the new MSC was a covered drive-up on the Lamar Street side. Decked out in the latest of 1970s fashions, students of the time thought the décor was tacky and overpriced, with a pine refectory table ($1650 in mid-1970s dollars), Japanese silkscreens, Italian marble busts, and more, especially since this was a time when students were paying six dollars a semester hour instead of two (it probably seemed like a huge deal at the time), and the Promenade, a gaudy room with chandeliers, dozens of big-game mounted animals heads, and a globe with flags sticking out of it. Windows looked out to the east.

92% of the student body didn't like it.

Yet, this room would become one of the most beloved A&M traditions of all time: the Flag Room. The animal heads were soon removed, and because the university couldn't get rid of them by sending them back, they were stored in a hangar at Riverside Campus, and (presumably) are still there.

Other changes of the 1970s included a larger Browsing Library (the Reading Room's descendant, I think) which had now expanded not only books and music, but video. Rumours (correct spelling, yes) was added near the Joe Routt side, a snack bar/coffeeshop which not only offered meals but entertainment. I'm told that Rumours unfortunately only opened to the outside, which is probably why I never saw it prior to closure.

The biggest change was the relocation of the relocation of the Exchange Store, which began calling itself the Texas A&M University Bookstore. While it would never move from that location (later the MSC Bookstore and now Barnes & Noble at Texas A&M University), it had a distinctly different layout. The lower level had textbooks (as they do now) but also different books (paperbacks, magazines, study guides, Cliffs Notes, reference books). The upper level had school supplies (now in the lower level for the most part), calculators (not cheap in the 1970s), A&M branded gifts and clothing, stationary, gifts, and records (I don't think the modern bookstore sells ANY music at all).

As time marched on, the roads started to close to make the campus more pedestrian-friendly. Houston Street no longer continued to the north (indeed, the 1970s renovation added a concrete pedestrian bridge from the MSC to the Rudder complex), Lamar curved left into Houston (heading north toward the YMCA Building and Sbisa), and Military Walk was converted to a pedestrian walkway and its identity all but forgotten. All the while, the student population was growing. By the 1980s, enrollment was around 40,000 up from 18,000 in the 1970s. Proposals for growth were submitted, and some student offices were outsourced to the Pavilion on Spence Street (which had been rebuilt into office space at about that time).

The overcrowding issue in campus affected other parts of campus. In the early 1980s, when parking on campus was plentiful and free, the MSC Cafeteria had chicken fried steak nights. According to poster Aggiefan54, "The [chicken fried steak] would hang off both sides of the plate, was tender and perfectly cooked, and the sides were great. Then they did something with the food service provider (one of the first privatizations?) and quality went to crap and the crowds disappeared. It was like going to Luby's or Furr's Cafeterias, only better-and it was in Aggieland."

When it was obvious that the Pavilion was not going to cut it in the long range, work began on not only the MSC's second remodel but an additional building not connected to the MSC, the John J. Koldus Student Services building, opening catty-corner to the MSC, at the southeast corner of Houston Street and Joe Routt Boulevard. It even contained a parking garage. Winter 1986 had the building closed for asbestos tile removal.

Memorial Student Center in the 1990s and 2000s

The 1990s remodel (1989-1991) did not do much to the building's décor, leaving it solidly in the 1970s. What was done was a three-level extension to the east, removing the Flag Room's windows (and by this time, I believe "Flag Room" was the official name) and the concrete bridge for an art gallery, an enclosed skywalk over to Rudder, and the Micro Computer Center (a software store attached to the bookstore), which by circa 2000 had been transformed into a full convenience store (Aggie Express). The basement got a new bowling alley (8 lanes) while the old one became the Hullabaloo Food Court, which offered a variety of options.

The 1989-1991 remodel added a covered walkway between the Rudder complex and the MSC, and a huge skywalk above, with the collective structure being named "University Center Complex". I remember the sign that they had in front of the skywalk with profile views of the Rudder complex and the MSC. The Flag Room's windows were lost as the J. Wayne Stark Gallery was added, and the bowling alley was moved to the expanded basement. There was the "Print N Copy" in the skywalk section. The renovation ousted of some of the university functions that were not student centered (including The Department of Parking, Transit, and Traffic, which would move practically off-campus in 2006). The bookstore got a minor expansion, but by and large, the MSC remained a 1970s time warp. In fact, up until the closure in 2009 the meeting rooms and ballrooms retained their unique decor. Gaze at the wonders of Room 201 and its trippy pinecone-shaped lamp fixtures, for instance. This would be destroyed later.

It was this time that I remember the MSC. There was something about the dark corridors, the wood trim, the huge bookstore (for years, they had "Bop It", Nerf gun, and Super Soakers pens), and the bowling alley (it wasn't as good as the Wolf Pen Bowling, which wasn't much better). And of course the International Weeks...the Multi-Cultural services for the university were there, and I vaguely recall going there once or twice (when did they did their events).

But whether I liked it or not, the MSC was getting old. There was a very minor renovation of the Flag Room in 2004 (if I remember correctly, mostly new furniture: less couches), and the bowling alley finally met its demise in 2005 after several years of losses. Not to say no one went bowling: it was still modestly popular and the campus bowling team had actually outgrown the space. This happened rather unceremoniously, considering bowling had been around in the MSC since day one.

2005 was perhaps the last "golden years" for the old MSC. The Hullabaloo food court was remodeled, which involved brightening it up a bit and modernizing it. By the end of this, it featured Chick-fil-A (which would be the fourth Chick-fil-A on campus, albeit short-lived one at that), The Other Burger, Sargino's, and Downtown Deli. The Other Burger was a rebranding of a no-name hamburger stand in the food court (to match the one in the Underground), and Chick-fil-A replaced a line that served chicken fried steak and chicken strips.

All but one these establishments were featured elsewhere on campus, and I dare say that Downtown Deli was the same as Common Denominator in all but name--a "make your own sandwich" place. Moreover, the bowling alley did reopen that fall (instead of the rumored computer lab). It still wasn't making a profit during the off-season, and there was no way the eight lanes would make a profit, no matter how many people went bowling. To be profitable, it would have to be 12 lanes. Nevertheless, it, along with the piano practice rooms, pool tables, arcade games, and TV rooms (collectively the MSC Bowling & Games) remained, saving student jobs and keeping bowling part of the MSC tradition.

Another part of the "MSC tradition" in danger was the hotel rooms. In January 2006, the Board of Regents decided to close the MSC Hotel, due to similar reasons of the MSC Bowling & Games: it was not making a profit (it rarely had more than 50% occupancy and was mostly at losses since 1992). This was because the MSC Hotel was not up to standards, and lacked many of the amenities modern hotels offered: high speed Internet, on-site parking (best bet was parking in the garage attached to Koldus), an elevator, bar, or lounge. [source 1, 2] While it made sound financial sense to convert much of the space to meeting space, some students felt that although there were much nicer hotels around College Station (something that could not be said in 1951), it was against the MSC tradition of hospitality, but like the Bowling & Games, it was partially reopened.

Another loss before the old MSC went away forever was the Browsing Library, by 2007 it was converted to the MSC Class Councils Center (the Internet had presumably put the screws to it).

Still, the MSC flourished, as part of student tradition and the MSC programs, which are something entirely (for more focus on the MSC programs, you can read the book Building Leaders, Living Traditions: The Memorial Student Center at Texas A&M University, which wasn't consulted in the making of this article). In 2006, the MSC was a campaign spot of Kinky Friedman, the upstart Texas governor candidate (his backers, summed up best by a supporter, were "bleeding-heart liberals and redneck conservatives", which is as bad as it sounds). Friedman took off his trademark cowboy hat, but being the fool he was, put it on back when he had the opportunity (to the encouragement of Aggies, even: bad bull at its finest). Friedman won about 12% of the vote that year, probably related to his bizarre political views and his demeanor.

But dark times were ahead. The MSC was not to standards for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems were aging and in need of repair. KBTX reported that ceilings were stained and cracked. An option to renovate by the student government appeared in October 2007. This initial plan would not close the MSC, but merely fix it up and update it. There would always be some part of it open. This video was posted on YouTube in support of the MSC renovation, which noticeably looks different than the actual product, particularly the shot of looking east toward Rudder Tower, replacing the loading docks with a large landscaped plaza. In reality, of course, this became part of the building. Heroically, there were votes against it, but the video was weak. It was hard to balance the energy of the MSC of the Future versus grim warnings of higher costs.

Thanks to some sort of mix-up regarding the plans of the building, it was delayed for a few years, until April 2009, when construction was about to begin. This renovation would dramatically alter the building, and cause it to close until August 2012.

The old MSC was doomed. By the end of the 2008-2009 school year, the MSC Bookstore moved into the G. Rollie White Coliseum, displacing the volleyball team (which moved out to West Campus, permanently), and the remaining services offered by the MSC spread across the winds of campus. The Choral Activities moved into the Commons basement, closing the popular Tomato Bar (which its cross-campus "Tomato Bar Express" paled in comparison to). The The harsh buzz of the mercury vapor lights, the overall depressing atmosphere, and the overall reduced size was a terrible thing to happen to the bookstore, but it remained open. Whatever the case, about a month before the MSC reopened, the popular off-campus bookstore, Loupot's, closed. More on Loupot's is at In, Around, and About Northgate.

Here is the map of the University Center Complex (including Loupot's) that was on the MSC website, circa 2008. Notice that it looks back toward Joe Routt Blvd., looking south. Not the greatest of maps, but it should do.

Most of the meeting space was outsourced to the nearby Rudder Tower/Rudder Theatre Complex, which was limited somewhat even, as the outdoor plaza that connected the second floor of the two buildings was closed, as well as the Rudder Fountain. A lot of the offices were relocated to Koldus, which had been built for the purposes of an overcrowding MSC and was about to be truly utilized once more. The Student Media (radio and The Battalion were moved to the Grove, where they would remain in a trailer house-like shack even as construction of the Old Main underpass would eventually take hold. The "Print N Copy" and the University Frame Shop would move to the Graphic Services Building, on Ireland Street. The Forsyth Galleries and J. Wayne Stark Gallery would relocate (I believe the J. Wayne Stark Gallery was in Downtown Bryan for a while). The Art Collections offices and Campus Art Loan Program resided in an office space carved out of the sixth floor of Evans Library (I believe there's grad student offices there, as well).

Worse was the closure of the food places at the MSC. When the MSC closed, about a third of the campus eateries essentially vanished. Despite minor updates to the other food places on campus, this was a blow to eating at campus as a whole. The casualties included the 12th Man International Food Court, a product of the 1990s (as it won some sort of award in 1999), which featured "three self-branded units: 01 Armydillo's, a barbecue unit; Elephant Walk, serving Asian cuisine; and Olla Roja, with its Tex-Mex menu." Before the 12th Man International Food Court, there was a "12th Man Burgers" in the MSC instead.

I can't speak for Elephant Wok (the actual name, it was misspelled on the article--it also served sushi, apparently, and it was better than the overpriced "Simply Fresh" sushi). Both of the Asian places on campus during the MSC's closure were pretty bad: both ChopStix and the worse Sucky Lucky 8) The recently remodeled Hullabaloo food court went too. Look at this: it looked like one of the nicer places to eat on campus at the time (ignoring the ripped out ceiling tiles and the like, that is):

The university tried to make up for the losses, including opening a small coffee bar in the lobby of the Rudder complex, extending hours of Bernie's Café, revising the menu of the Grill at the Pavilion, and opening ChopStix near the Commons.

The Aggieland Post Office closed permanently: a victim of changing times. Just as well: USPS announced major cuts during the time after the closure (it's okay, the Northgate Post Office is still open and still delightfully old-fashioned--although the Houston Street rebuild has made it extremely difficult to access), the Bowling & Games would not be returning, the Wells Fargo ATM would be moved to the Rudder building, the MSCC Information Desk was moved to Koldus, and the Aggie Express Convenience Store would shut down as well. Rumours was closed down permanently, with it and the post office being turned into an expanded bookstore. The loss of Rumours has been mourned by the students that remember it. Like how the Commons offered the "make-your-own" options, here's something from that same review about the late, lamented Rumours.

I can hear the angels singing as I type the name. This is as good as it gets on campus with the exception of Cain [which featured an upscale athletes-only buffet]. I actually find it as good as most places off campus. It's a great sandwich shop and deli. They make a great club sandwich and chicken caesar roll-up (my two personal favorites). They have excellent hot sandwiches as well. This one gets the A+, and it's the only one that I would choose to eat at over some off campus restaurant. The only problem is that it's not that big. It can be pretty busy around lunch time, taking as long as 30 minutes to get from the end of the line to having food in your hands. Finding a place to sit can be a trick, but usually someone will scoot over on a couch upstairs and give you a seat.

Sadly, I could find very little in terms of Rumours or the things it offered. I did find this graphic from 2001 (which confirms the spelling), and it apparently did offer Starbucks Coffee.

The Modern MSC (2012-)

The course of the renovation did more than just give it new HVAC systems and a new coat of paint: it all but demolished the building and rebuilt it. In fact, with the changes proposed, it would've been probably more economical to run bulldozers into it and rebuild from scratch.

While the shell of the building and its concrete foundations went largely untouched, the building was ripped down to the bare walls, removing flooring, walls, and ceilings. From this 2011 shot, it looks like the roof was removed from most of the MSC and the upper level was completely gutted to the slab. Ouch.

For about two years, the MSC, Rudder Plaza, Joe Routt, and the northbound lane of Clark Street (renamed "Gene Stallings Blvd." in summer 2011) was closed off as the building came apart and slowly reassembled.

On the evening of April 20th, an invitation-only event was held. Some students watched as uniformed Corps members welcomed in well-dressed much older folks (which was not the Class of '62 reunion, apparently, despite evidence to the contrary). On April 21st, 2012, the MSC was re-dedicated and reopened, with one-time Presidential candidate and long-running Texas governor Rick Perry in attendance.

Everything about the MSC was altered, though necessarily not for the better. The hotel and the bowling alley, two of the things that the MSC had always featured for about half a century, were gone. Of course, these were also the things that were considered unprofitable, and the costs of making them viable were unfeasible. The bookstore needed the space of the bowling alley, and the hotel lacked free parking (something that EVERY OTHER HOTEL IN TOWN HAD, except maybe LaSalle), thus ousting both.

Another thing that happened was that the MSC had somewhat sold out to chains: the Print N Copy was to be replaced with a Copy Corner (which wasn't exactly a chain since it is a local chain, but a "brand" nonetheless) and the MSC Bookstore was now branded as a "Barnes & Noble at Texas A&M University", even though it had been operated by Barnes & Noble for several years. This, however, created more of a Barnes & Noble-like merchandise mix, décor, and added a Barnes & Noble Café area (serving Starbucks Coffee, of course).

The second level walkway on the southwest side of the building and the courtyard fountains were completely demolished. While the shipping areas largely remained unchanged (sloping down from an entrance near Clark, er, "Gene Stallings"), a large ballroom (the Bethancourt Family Grand Ballroom, no doubt a well-moneyed alumni) was built over it on the second level. This had exterior staircases leading up to the second level. Directly below it was the new Copy Corner and a new Chase bank. The courtyard outside (now the "Betsy and Pete Forster '63 Courtyard and Garden"), but was reduced to mostly concrete walkways and a tree that they had saved. Unfortunately, the only grass there was part of the protected MSC grass, and there was no real places to sit and eat a lunch. On the west side was a new wing for the Board of Regents.

The Barnes & Noble store got a new, prominent entranceway under where the old A&M-standard Helvetica "Memorial Student Center" was written (indeed, you can see it was where it was if you look above the present sign), and the store was expanded even further than its old boundaries. Taking over the space where the post office and Rumours was, the first level of the bookstore offered a vast selection of both general books (the type you would normally find in a Barnes & Noble), the Barnes & Noble Café, and the new "Aggie Stop" convenience store. The lower level offered school supplies and textbooks. This had to take the space of the bowling alley, the remaining space of which became MacResource Computer Center, which wasn't much bigger or better than MacResource Computers @ Northgate, which it moved from, though this wasn't complete--this didn't open until about a month after the MSC reopened.

The 12th Man International Food Court was changed into a generic food court (officially, "Upper Level Dining") with several different options in an "ala carte" format. There was a "Vindaloo" kiosk, "Ciao" (probably a small nod to A&M's military history: "Chow", get it? never mind), a kiosk with serve-your-own fresh pizza, plus pasta options (usually a pasta-based casserole or fresh pasta), with other types of noodles and soups available. Both before and after the Compass outsourcing, I noticed that there was some quality control issues with the bread served there: one day it could be a slice of buttery goodness, the next a small, thin, stale slice.

I have to say, at first, Ciao was an awesome deal at first: you could two slices of hot pizza, a drink, and a piece of garlic toast for a meal (a good deal). But now it's not so much now. Vindaloo is one of the better deals in terms of dollars-to-food (though that's not saying much). Unfortunately, despite smelling good, Vindaloo (like all mediocre Indian food) compensates for bland food by adding tons of spices, and food being "simutaneously bland and spicy" is never a good thing.

Next to Ciao is "Pile On". Originally, this was a gourmet sandwich option, with a touchscreen interface on what you wanted, such as Vietnamese pulled pork sandwiches.
An alteration for fall 2012 added traditional sandwich options (a la Subway). Unfortunately, this fell short of the original plan--marketing materials mentioned options like fresh tuna, but this was never the case. I quote:

Looking for a sandwich or salad that's anything but ordinary? Then Pile On is the place for you, with selections including fresh tuna, sesame ginger chicken and lemon Dijon pork.
(from the Facility Descriptions)

To the right of the serving area was Smokin', the barbecue option, which was the "return" of 01 Ol' Armydillo's. This I never went to, and the one time I did (post-outsourcing) I discovered that there was no white bread available. High price notwithstanding, that was the dealbreaker.

The Flag Room was arguably demolished and replaced with a suspiciously similar replica. The grid-like 70's ceiling was removed with a generic ceiling with recessed lighting. Also added was some strange, lit plaques on the wall, which I don't have a picture of right now.

The skywalk was razed and replaced with the 12th Man Hall, plus a much smaller skywalk. I've taken a picture as seen below to give you a glance at how wide the original skywalk was. While it was Rumours that was lost for the new convenience store, the old convenience store was turned into Rev's American Sports Grill, the "late-night concept with exterior entrance" to make up for the loss of Rumours, and the menu is upscale hamburgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. Also available is your protein being a black bean tofu patty: but only if you have nothing but contempt for yourself (that's a joke). One of Rev's big selling points was serving St. Arnold Root Beer, which is delicious and relatively rare--you can only find it in Spec's or Village Foods. Supposedly, Rev's was supposed to serve real beer, but it was decided that serving alcohol in a war memorial wasn't the best of ideas. I did, however, hear of Rumours serving beer in the past, but that's all it is, a "rumour". 12th Man Hall itself is mostly a wide, tall gathering area emblazoned with the names of wealthy alumni who were willing to sponsor it. When it first opened, it had these map booklets derived from floorplans of the renovated MSC. Check them out here.

Because the idea was to purge as much as the 1970s essence as possible, skylights were cut out and light could reach the lower level. The wood trim on everything was gone, with one exception: near the ramp outside the first level entrance of the bookstore (which was also altered, because the ramp was too steep originally for modern standards), is the wood carvings that was from the old MSC.

In the basement area (now called the "Lower Level"), the huge MSC Bowling & Games was reduced to a few pool tables and some couches with TVs and "sound pods". Video games are available for rental. The old Hullabaloo food court was replaced with the "Lower Level Dining" area. There was Cabo, a Tex-Mex inspired eatery. At one time, this was the only non-Rev's place open past four (and hence, mega-popular). I was looking forward to the description as advertised: Discover new Mexican offerings with a fresh twist, from mahi-mahi tacos with melon salsa to chicharron stuffed with zesty marinated pork and caramelized onions. That too was a wash, as they only had certain tacos certain days. Still, the "Taco Al Carbon" I had wasn't bad and was somewhere between the (late? I heard it closed) Rusty Taco and Fuego Tortilla Grill. The tortilla chips had mild seasoning, as well. I liked it overall, and made a plan to return in the fall semester. But by fall semester, Cabo had closed--at least in essence. With the signage intact, Cabo was serving up only a Freebirds-esque burrito for prices I was unwilling to pay.

Next, "Cool" offers smoothies, about two or three flavors of gelato, and about four flavors of frozen yogurt. It's not anything special and doesn't really pose a threat to any other frozen yogurt place in town, but it is something, and we haven't had gelato since Tuscany's closed. Cool's frozen yogurt wasn't great: the flavor selection and topping selection was pitiful compared to Spoons, and my vanilla frozen yogurt just ended up tasted like sugar. A guilty pleasure, but by no means anything special.

Finally, there was Panda Express, which opened in August 2012 (when it opened, it was just drywall with the Panda Express logo around it). It's also the only eatery in the MSC where you can get soda in a real paper cup instead of the even-chintizier "compostable Pepsi cups". Panda Express, like the campus Chick-fil-A locations, are also priced much higher than their stand-alone counterparts are and/or priced the same but have lower quality.

Up on the second level was the butchered Room 201, now known as the Robert Gates Student Ballroom at Room 2400, which was converted into a tearfully boring conference room. I can see why my cousin, a member of the Corps who attended Texas A&M in the early 2000s wept at the loss of the old MSC. Another change was that the hotel (complete with hotel desk and all) was gone, replaced with meeting rooms (presumably replacing some lost space in the skywalk demo).

The outside was significantly altered, as well. New entrances with names like "Loyalty" and "Integrity" were added. Kind of cheesy, if you ask me, but it looks cool. The most significant change was that Joe Routt, which once ran in front of the MSC as a four lane road, was butchered. The westbound lanes was converted into a wide plaza for things like stairs, ramps, and bike ramps, while the eastbound lanes was rebuilt with brick and had bike lanes (in two directions) and a bus only lane. This meant if you were trying to access the rest of campus (as in, where the parking lots and the like were) Joe Routt was no longer an option. However, in October 2012, the road changed so that normal cars could access it between 6pm and 6am.

The back hallways of the basement (er, "Lower Level", again, but were actually on a mid-level) was also unfinished. The Choral Activities remained in the Commons, because their area wasn't done yet. The Board of Regents wing also wasn't done yet. I can't blame them for cutting a few corners, as construction was mostly complete and the seniors needed some time to see the new MSC, and they were impressed. The same goes for me and this article, not putting in as many pictures as I could have (but I've mostly corrected that).

By August 2012, the MSC was complete and by September began a Grand Opening celebration, with many guest speakers. By this time, Panda Express, MacResource Center, and Copy Corner (another branded option) were all open. I even attended one of these events: I got to go to a talk by Dr. Jorge Cham, creator of Piled Higher and Deeper. Awesome indeed.

Unfortunately, while the convenience center and the dining options were open later, the Compass Group had taken hold and the food quality went downhill. While Cabo never offered mahi-mahi tacos, the taco eatery was now a generic make-your-own burrito place, Ciao was no longer offering thick, delicious chunks of lasagna and heavenly garlic toast, replaced with some options that looked unappetizing and had less food. Pile On still had hot sandwich operations but had devolved into more-or-less, a generic "make your own sandwich" place. I remember buying a Vietnamese pulled pork sandwich from the old Pile On, and it was delicious! A bit hard to eat, but there was cilantro and good meat, and I enjoyed. Post-Compass, I was appalled at the crap they served me: some slices of pork, a carrot, maybe some cabbage, on a small, 6 inch toasted wheat bun. And I payed about $6.50 for it. I know inflation had taken hold, but what they tried to serve me was horrid. I saw that they had a chicken caesar wrap, too...perhaps had it not been for the privatization, it could've served the same food items of Rumours...but at the limited hours it had at the time and now with the food ruined by some awful outside group, it truly is gone. Blame Sharp and his cronies.

The new J. Wayne Stark Galleries reminds me of this art museum in Houston in terms of décor; however, I don't ever remember the old one, so I have no frame of reference to compare.

Joe Routt never really re-opened. The westbound part was closed off for an expanded pedestrian area with lots of bike parking, with the eastbound part becoming a single lane eastbound only for buses, with bike lanes in both directions. By October, the road was reopened, but only between 6pm and 6am, and still no westbound traffic. At that time as well, the part of Joe Routt that ran near Rudder Tower was similarly butchered, with eastbound only as well.

In spring 2013, they revised the Rev's menu again, but I still don't care for it, as I ordered something, and even though I had the condiments bar, it just was not very good. I'd rather have them prepare the burger for me, rather then go for the "foodborne illness" bar. It makes me miss Fat Burger, and wish that it was still Rumours, where I could just get a chicken caesar wrap (by the way, the ones from the Underground these days are completely terrible, Pita Pit, while expensive and on Northgate, is your best bet). Likewise, Cabo was offering "tacos", but it was just burritos in a different tortilla size, and also offering ridiculously overpriced bottles of Jarritos. "Noodle", which was only in business in fall 2012 and had large (overpriced) cups of noodles, broth, vegetables, and protein was gone (I actually was a bit partial to the tofu and vegetable-based broth one, despite not being a vegetarian). I had tried Smokin' that same semester, and was pleased to find it offered just plain cafeteria-style food (and included things like boudin) but was appalled to find that it was far overpriced (upwards to $7.80) for boudin (mostly rice!), macaroni and cheese, green beans (both pretty meager servings), and a banana (no soda, either).

I haven't explored the complete entirety of the MSC: the second level is still relatively unknown to me. Just as well, since I don't know enough about the second level to compare it to what it was. I also imagine where the "holes" were cut out for skylights was probably originally meeting space, though. If anyone can fill me in, that would be much appreciated.

I do have a few pictures, however, mostly the new map and unlabeled basement and second floor plans from the "old MSC". You can see some of the pre-renovation pictures buried in these Flickr results (the first four pages, anyway). I'm trying to get a few of them on this page, to give it some color. Do check out the impressive "gold grid" of the Flag Room: it gave it a level of warmth unseen in the new one. Also, note the change between the yellowish tile of the 70s MSC and the carpet of the 1990 expansion.

Since then, a few things have changed. In the 12th Man Hall, there was something that resembled a bunch of Christmas lights hanging down, which were supposed to do something like intermingle images of old with passing visitors through, or something along those lines, but I've never seen it worked (it remains a piece of nice, but expensive, décor). Below this light fixture is a fish tank with the cringe-worthy name "Aglantis", and has not much more beyond a crab ("E. Crab Gill"). "Aglantis" was the "winner" in a bunch of other bad puns, including "Under the M-S-Sea".

In fall 2013, Stark Galleries got some new signage in its south entrance (just east of the Flag Room), and the ruined Cabo was replaced with a Compass/Chartwells brand, "Chick-N-Grill". Changes to the upper level dining included "Crispy", a "budget" option that served fries, chicken fingers, and white gravy...probably to appeal to the chicken finger crowd, missing the point of what makes Layne's and Raising Cane's tasty (the chicken is unseasoned, no Texas toast, and white gravy is no substitute for the seasoned mustard dips), a smaller Cabo line (again burritos). To add insult to injury, the upper level dining got shut down due to rats. Keep that in mind if one of the chicken fingers looks and tastes a little odd.

Final Thoughts

To me, the MSC really didn't have to go the way it did. Sure, it was dated, but I feel it didn't need all that have ripped out of it. Instead of destroying the courtyard with a "maze of wheelchair ramps", they could've just lowered the MSC's floor for access to it (after all, the ramp in front of the bookstore to the left of the Flag Room was altered to be less steep and into ADA standards). The Flag Room could've been left alone completely. Rumours could've been expanded (with keeping the original 70s theme) with an interior entrance. The post office probably couldn't be saved but recycled into the bookstore. The 12th Man International Food Court and Cafeteria could've been renovated into the concepts they introduced. The hotel could've been renovated into meeting rooms, and the lighting and flooring could've been altered. Moreover, since the MSC was completely closed anyway, why not do something interesting that wouldn't have been possible without construction? They closed off Joe Routt Boulevard: wouldn't it be amazing to integrate the Zone into the structure, allowing donors to commute from the MSC to Kyle Field in air conditioned comfort? Or integrate Koldus into the MSC complex?

I admit, the new MSC does look stunning sometimes.

There's a ton of things that could've happened, with the MSC keeping the same charm that attracted many to it in the first place, or at least the new MSC opening in phases. Sadly, history just isn't appreciated very much: while I like Rudder Theatre today, the 1970s look maintained in and out, it must have seemed as much as wrong to tear down Guion Hall for a "modern" structure as the old MSC did today. It is progress, I suppose.

There's one "before" and "after" shot I'd like to show you. It's not taken from the *exact* same spot, and Cody Green's photo is from a better camera, and mine seems a bit washed out (partly because the new MSC was brighter, and his is a far better camera), but here's a picture taken from a vantage point with the Flag Room on the left and the bookstore straight ahead. You can right-click on the images to see their full size (and undistorted).

Monday, April 16, 2012

YMCA Building

Built in 1915 but hasn't been a real YMCA in years, the YMCA Building reopened in early 2012 (before flooding destroyed the lower level, necessitating more renovations, including adding a new ADA ramp). The building originally had a chapel, swimming pool, and bowling alley before those functions were replaced by other buildings. They also had a barber shop (also replaced by the MSC). Sometime in the mid-2000s, the building was condemned due to structural concerns (been tough to nail down, one source says 2003, one says 2006, and I think I read somewhere about 2005--also, it was offices before 1995) from previous renovations. In 2010, renovations took place to rebuild the rear wing and extensively renovate the front.

There isn't a whole lot of information on its history: I could dig up pictures, but there's no drama like the Memorial Student Center, either (the building is pretty small). As for the digging up pictures part, there's a Flickr page.

On AggieMap, there's an older picture of the YMCA (or at least was), taken almost at EXACTLY the same angle as the newer one! The newer one is on the bottom.

365 Houston Street