In the spring of 1939, a citizen's committee led by Altoona Chamber of Commerce Chairman J.E. (Ted) Holtzinger convinced Ralph D. Hetzel, president of Penn State, to support an undergraduate center in Altoona. In July, the citizen's committee launched a campaign to raise money to renovate an abandoned grade school building to house the new center. More than $5,000 was raised from 8,000 local contributors in just two months—an astounding amount considering that many in this area were still unemployed.
Webster School Building
Credit: Penn State
On September 13, 1939, the Altoona Undergraduate Center opened in the Webster Grade School Building in downtown Altoona. The first-year class of 119 commuter students was taught by nine faculty members. In 1940, the citizen's committee was reorganized into an Advisory Board for the Center. The Board raised another $3,000 for a second downtown building, Madison, to make room for advanced science courses.
World War II almost forced the AUC to close as men went to war and women went to work. To keep the center open, the Advisory Board financed operating deficits and opened a women's dormitory from 1944–1947 for female students from out of town.
Returning World War II veterans overfilled the Webster and Madison buildings in 1946 and the Center desperately needed more space. After raising $50,000, the Advisory Board purchased Ivyside Park in 1947, an abandoned 38-acre amusement park on the outskirts of the city, for a new campus. The park was home to the world's largest concrete swimming pool, now a parking lot for the college. Existing park buildings such as the bathhouse, a huge two-block-long dressing room, were renovated for the Center's use—hence the Center's affectionate nickname, "Bathhouse U." The Ivyside Park campus opened in 1948 with approximately 600 students and 30 faculty members.
Ivyside Park Bathhouse, Swimming Pool, and Roller Coaster
Credit: Penn State
During the 1950s, associate degree programs were added and brought many more out-of-town students to Altoona. As enrollment increased, so did funds from the community. Money was pledged to build the E. Raymond Smith Building, a classroom and administration building that replaced the Bathhouse. In 1958, with the opening of the Smith Building, the AUC's name was changed to the Altoona Campus of The Pennsylvania State University. On July 1, 1997, the Penn State Altoona Campus became Penn State Altoona, a four-year baccalaureate degree-granting college of the University.
Over the years, the Advisory Board has purchased land bordering Penn State Altoona as it became available. The Ivyside Park campus now contains 171.5 acres with more than 30 buildings centered around a reflecting pond, the original warming dam from the old Ivyside Amusement Park.
The Devorris Downtown Center and the Aaron and Penn Buildings
Credit: Penn State
In 1999, the college added its first location in downtown Altoona with the leasing of the Downtown Conference Center, formerly the Playhouse Theater. Managed by the continuing education and training office, programs and courses for individuals, businesses, and the community were offered. Soon thereafter, the entire continuing education and training office relocated to downtown Altoona and the Conference Center was purchased by the college in 2005.
Spring Run Stadium, home of Penn State Altoona's men's and women's soccer teams, was added to the college's athletic complex. The Stadium features a regulation soccer field, an eight-lane track, and a 2,000 seat grandstand.
With the purchase of land on Gwin Road across from the residence halls, the college again expanded its landscape. The Beech House, home to the Office of Strategic Communications, as well as the Larch House, a guest house offering temporary accommodations to special guests, are located on this site.
Credit: Penn State
In 2005, the college's newest classroom building celebrated its grand opening. The Hawthorn Building houses 56 faculty offices and 24 classrooms, including a music rehearsal room and three computer classrooms.
In 2007, the college’s Downtown Conference Center was rededicated as the Devorris Downtown Center to honor the philanthropy of local entrepreneur Donald Devorris and his wife Nancy. The Aaron Building in downtown Altoona was also acquired by the college and the Altoona/Blair County Development Corporation, paving the way for the college to provide multi-campus course offerings. Over the next two years, the building was renovated to include the Dining Car Downtown eatery, state-of-the-art facilities devoted to the nursing and communications programs, as well as the Office of Continuing Education and Training.
In 2008, Chancellor Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry and Head Librarian Timothy Wherry presented a leadership gift to the college to name the Eiche Library study. That same year, Wm. Dennis "Denny" Stewart, the college’s senior director of business operations, and his wife, Dianne, provided the college with a gift to name the athletic fields.
Obtained by Penn State Altoona in 2008, the Seminar Forest is a forty-acre tract of land located across the Juniata Gap entrance to campus. The forest, previously known as the Ritchey Property, has hiking and mountain biking trails and a restored pond. The land has been geologically assessed, surveyed for its biodiversity, studied, and simply enjoyed by students, faculty and staff, and members of the community.
With the dedication of the Robert L. Smith Learning Resources Center on August 26, 2010, Penn State Altoona paid tribute to the late administrator who devoted nearly seven decades of distinguished service to the college's advancement. The Robert L. Smith Learning Resources Center guides students along the path to success in the classroom by providing peer and professional tutoring and other academic assistance, to help students become independent learners.
Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence
Credit: Penn State
Through the generous donation of philanthropist, Penn State graduate, and businessman Steve Sheetz and his wife, Nancy, The Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence opened its doors in fall 2011. The Center's mission—underscored by a deep interdisciplinary nature—is to develop entrepreneurial leaders and foster the creation of successful ventures within the Penn State Altoona community.
In the fall of 2011, a replica Thoreau cabin was built in Seminar Forest at the base of the trailhead along Beckers Lane. The cabin houses environmental research projects that have been undertaken in the forest. The forest is a thriving environmental education center made possible by the vision and efforts of many faculty, staff, and students at Penn State Altoona.
In 2015, students enrolled in ENVST 200 launched the Feed the Flames of Seminar Forest campaign to raise funds for the purchase of raw materials and construction costs for a fire pit on the Seminar Forest property at Penn State Altoona. One of the first crowdfunding efforts within the entire Penn State system, the campaign raised $3,369 from 75 supporters.
In 2017, the Altoona LaunchBox opened in the Gables Building in Downtown Altoona. In 2018, the facility was renamed the Altoona LaunchBox supported by the Hite family, in recognition of a $1 million donation by local business leader and philanthropist Lee Hite and his family. In 2020, the LaunchBox was moved to the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, located in downtown Altoona. The Altoona LaunchBox supported by the Hite family is a no-cost startup accelerator and co-working space designed to provide early-stage startups with the support and resources they need to build a sustainable and scalable business and a viable plan for growth. The LaunchBox is part of the Invent Penn State initiative.