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An Inside Glance at MIT’s Newest Athletic Facility

By Christine R. Fry


I don’t work out, I’m not on any sports teams, and I’ve only taken one physical education class. Let’s just say that I’m not up-to-date with the MIT athletic program. As I walked through the partially finished Zesiger Center, I began to plan my new fitness regiment: swimming in the morning, PE classes during the day, and maybe a late-night work out in the fitness room. Once the Zesiger Center is open to the MIT community, I am certain that even the greatest exercise-phobe will be inspired by the amazing new facilities to become the next Richard Simmons.

The Albert and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center is expected to open to the community on Sept. 7.

“Our current schedule is calling for substantial completion by Aug. 23,” said Dan Martin, assistant department head of facilities and operations for the Department of Athletics. Between Aug. 23 and Sept. 7, equipment will be moved into the center. The dedication of the building will be Oct. 4.

According to Martin, the current construction budget is $55.2 million.

“We are very close to [the projected] budget,” he said.

A great deal of the funding for the building has come from donors. The building is named after the main donors, Albert Zesiger ’53 and his wife Barrie Zesiger. Many of the rooms inside of the building will also be named after donors.

“A lot of the money has been fundraised at this point,” Martin said.

Zesiger Center could be new hub

My tour of the Zesiger Center began at the gates of the construction site, next to Kresge Auditorium. The space in front of the building, which is currently a gravel lot and home to the contractor and subcontractor trailers, will receive a makeover during the summer. Martin said that the various subcontractors will leave the site gradually as the different aspects of the building are finished over the summer. By the projected opening date, the area in front of the building will have grass and potted plants. The sidewalk in front of the Student Center will be continued, past the Zesiger Center to the athletic fields next to Johnson Athletic Center.

One of the unique features of the building is that it is being integrated into three existing structures, du Pont Gymnasium, Johnson Athletic Center, and Rockwell Cage.

“Not only is it a new facility, it’s tying in existing facilities,” Martin said.

In addition to providing athletic facilities, the building will be used as a pathway to main campus for students living at Simmons Hall and around Vassar Street.

“There will be an artery from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” Martin said.

Access to the building will be controlled by desk workers at main entrances, as well as card readers. Students who are just using the building for access to main campus will not have to swipe their ID cards because they will be passing through what Martin called “out of control” areas.

“Our hope is that this becomes a hub of campus,” he said.

The Zesiger Center will most likely be managed and maintained by an outside management company. MIT is currently negotiating with companies that specialize in managing fitness centers. The company would provide professional staff who would run the building and assist people using fitness equipment and other aspects of the facility.

Natatorium key to facility

The main entrance, just to the right of the current Johnson Athletic Center, will be impressive. The lobby is spacious, with high ceilings. There will be an athletic shop that will sell sports-related merchandise, as well as a juice bar. The main corridor on the first floor, just past the lobby, will be adorned with art by Matthew Ritchie. The theme of the art is Ritchie’s interpretation of the Big Bang Theory and will consist of a mural that will span the length of the corridor, as well as drawings on the glass of the natatorium.

The natatorium itself is a work of art. It is three stories high and is the center of the building. Most of the other areas of the building have windows overlooking the pool.

“The biggest element [of the building] is the 50-meter pool,” Martin said. There are actually two pools in the natatorium: the Olympic-size swimming pool and a smaller teaching pool.

The main pool is surrounded by seating for 450 spectators and has two diving platforms. The pool has been designed to be a “fast pool.” This means that many precautions have been taken to make the surface of the water as smooth as possible. This allows for faster times in competitive swimming. One such precaution is the 1.5-foot-deep intake gutter around the perimeter of the pool. Martin said that the deep gutter will absorb most of the waves created by swimmers when they dive into the pool.

“We’ll probably set a lot of [swimming] records here,” he said.

Both of the pools will be available to the general MIT community as well as the swimming, water polo, and diving teams. Martin said that between the Zesiger Center pools and the Alumni Pool, “we will have recreational swimming all day.” He added that other uses of the pool, such as kayaking and scuba diving, will also be considered “if there’s an interest.”

A new, larger fitness center

The fitness room will definitely be an improvement over the current one. The Zesiger Center has 12,000 square feet of space set aside for work-out equipment. The fitness room will include free weights, weight-selector machines, and 60 cardiovascular machines. The fitness room will be open to the community during the normal operating hours of the building, which will most likely be from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. Martin does not expect that patrons of the fitness room will have to schedule times to use the fitness equipment since there will be so many machines and the room will be open for such a long time.

The neatest feature of the room is the cardio-theater. There will be 8 televisions in front of the cardiovascular machines. The people using the machines will be able to control the channels and plug headphones into the machines so that they can watch television during their work-out. There will also be music options.

The fitness room is almost entirely enclosed in glass. Two sides look out onto the Student Center and the Kresge Oval. Because the buildings are so close, the view out the window along the Student Center is less than spectacular. The third side looks over the pool. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to work out now that they’ll be able to either watch television or watch people in bathing suits as they run on the treadmill.

My favorite (and Martin’s favorite) part of the building is the MultiActivity Court (MAC). It is a court that has been designed for basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer, and roller hockey. It resembles a hockey rink in that it is entirely enclosed by high side walls and is in the shape of an oval. The floor is made out of a material designed to be skate-friendly called “spider court.”

Along with the pool, fitness room, and MAC, the Zesiger Center will also house six international squash courts, offices for coaches and other members of the Department of Athletics, and a large sports medicine facility.

Working out in a glass house

The facade of the Zesiger Center is almost entirely glass.

“The building is pretty transparent,” Martin said.

The glass blocks out approximately 90 percent of sunlight so that occupants of the building will not be blinded by the sun. From afar, the glass appears to be heavily tinted. However, up close, the glass is covered in a mesmerizing mosaic of grayish dots. The color of the glass is called “candy kiss.”

At night, people outside of the building will be able to see into the fitness room and MAC. I’m not too crazy about the fact that I, along with my fellow fitness room patrons, will be put on display for all who pass by to gawk at. I guess I’ll have to use a machine facing the Student Center so that the only thing watching me is the depressing gray stone.

The size and functions of the Zesiger Center are impressive considering the size of MIT.

“We are on the cutting edge of athletic facilities in the northeast. For the size of MIT, this is one of the finest in the country,” Martin said. He said that MIT is very unique because all of the athletic facilities are used by both varsity athletes and non-athletes.

“One of the things that makes us different is that we share all of our [athletic] areas,” he said.

The completion of the Zesiger Center is not the end of the campaign to improve the MIT athletic facilities.

“We have one more phase in this project. The next phase would take down Rockwell Cage,” Martin said. In its place would be another building that may house, among other things, a climbing wall. He stressed that this is a long term plan and will not occur until sufficient funds have been raised.

After touring the Zesiger Center, I am definitely ready to integrate exercising into my daily schedule. As people are compelled to work out in the shiny new building, the MIT student body is going to become a super force of smart, fit wunderkind.

On second thought, maybe only until the first tests of the fall term.