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 the 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.
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 sophomore 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.
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 first residence hall (Oak) and the Harry E. Slep Student Center opened in 1964. Six more buildings opened in 1970: a second residence hall (Maple), a dining hall, the library, the science and engineering buildings, and the chapel, which was built entirely with privately subscribed funds. The Steven A. Adler Athletic Complex was built in two stages in 1972 and 1977. Five more new buildings were built during the 1980s, which essentially completed the college's physical plant. The bookstore building was completed in 1985, a third residence hall (Spruce) in 1987, the Community Arts Center and the Computer and Learning Resources Center opened in 1989, and a maintenance building was completed in 1993. The Slep Student Center was renovated during the 1995-96 academic year, and a free-weight room was added to the Adler Athletic Complex during the summer of 1996. Construction for the Cedar residence hall and the Ralph and Helen Force Advanced Technology Center broke ground in the spring of 1996, and both were completed in the fall of 1997.
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.
In 2001, the Cypress Building was constructed which now is home to faculty offices and classrooms. The Sheetz Family Health Center opened its doors in 2002, providing a home for the college's health and wellness center and nursing degree programs.
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.
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 May 2006, the Community Arts Center was renamed the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts to recognize the philanthropy of Anthony Misciagna and his family.
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.
Formerly the WRTA radio broadcast facility in downtown Altoona, the Kazmaier Family Building opened in 2009 as the home to the college’s Development and Alumni Relations Office, thanks to the philanthropy of John Kazmaier, his wife Dede, and his mother, the late Jane Patterson Kazmaier Lower.
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.
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.
Acquired by the college in 2015, the Penn Building is located next to the Aaron Building in downtown Altoona. It includes classrooms, labs, offices, and student lounges in support of our business program, security and risk analysis program, and rail transportation engineering program—the only degree of its kind in the nation.
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.