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A century-old former gymnasium — with a wide-open floor plan and a suspended running track encircling the interior — has become the hub of student life at Thomas Aquinas College, New England, thanks to the generosity of the College’s benefactors.

Completed in 1895, Tracy Student Center is an attractive red-brick building, perched on the gentle slopes of the Connecticut River Valley, which offers a pleasant setting for an afternoon cup of coffee, a chat around the fireplace, or a quick game of pool after an evening of study. The space has assumed various roles during its long and fascinating history, and after extensive renovations and additions earlier this year, it now fosters the community life essential to the formation offered at the College.

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A student reads by the Tracy Student Center fireplace

Built in the Queen Anne style of architecture, the spacious structure originally featured a bowling alley, a basketball court, gymnastics equipment, and a marble-lined swimming tank. After the prep school that formerly occupied the campus built a new athletics facility in 1971, Tracy became a student center, and later part of the school’s library. When Thomas Aquinas College took ownership of the campus in 2017, officials imagined that, eventually, the building would be used for a student center once more.

Those plans, however, rapidly accelerated after the onset of COVID-19.

Mindful that, to minimize the risk of spreading the virus, the College would need to entice students to remain on campus, officials moved quickly to make Tracy Student Center a fun, desirable spot where friends could gather and socialize. Over the summer, workers carefully repainted the interior of the building and installed a handsome oak floor. Meanwhile, Dr. Thomas J. Kaiser, dean of the New England campus, sent out an email asking the College’s benefactors to help furnish the Center with a wide array of amenities, from couches and chairs to pool tables and a pizza oven.

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Ping-pong in Tracy Student Center

Among the generous donations that made their way to campus were foosball, ping-pong, and air-hockey tables, plus various popular board games. The fireplace at the far end of the building became the focal point of a comfortable lounge with couches, coffee tables, ample lighting, and a dart board. When needed, the area can be cleared out to make a generous floor ideal for the student dances.

In addition to the lounge and game area, construction is under way on a kitchen and dining court. By as early as next semester, students will have at their disposal a deep fryer, a panini grill, a pizza oven, and a fully equipped coffee shop. Barstools and pub tables, crafted of custom maple wood, will be set up near the kitchen. “The coffee shop and the kitchen attached to it will provide a hub for students to come and relax and rejuvenate after class,” says Kevin Murphy (’22). “The environment created there will be a space where students can interact in a more casual way and enjoy good food and drinks along with each other’s company.”

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Students enjoy coffee in Tracy Student Center

These different sections are all on the building’s lower level. The suspended running track — once used to train athletes — has become a balcony lounge, complete with several large tables, overlooking the room below. “The views during dances are amazing, especially waltzes,” remarks Peter Duchow, a junior. “It’s really fun to watch.” With counter-height tables at each window, the track also affords a bird’s-eye view of the serene New England countryside.

Tracy Student Center will play a vital role in the lives of Thomas Aquinas College students for years to come. “Academics are the focus of our life here,” reflects Isaac Cross (’19), a recent graduate who now serves as a resident director on the New England campus. “But fundamental to supporting the academic life is the social life of the students here. The College values fostering a strong community life, because this is a community of friends, and the better your friendships are, the better your discussions will be in class.”

Although Tracy Student Center is now operational, there are still various amenities that have yet to be sponsored. Please visit the registry to see how you can help!