Henry Clark Bedford, a Houghton Seminary teacher, proposed the need for a college gymnasium at an alumni meeting during the 1912 Commencement. According to Bedford, "I made a talk emphasizing the need of a gymnasium. My speech struck fire, and someone moved that we start taking subscriptions right then." One thousand dollars was immediately pledged, and two years later ground was broken for Houghton's first gymnasium, Bedford Gym, on May 8, 1914, near the site of the current Reinhold Campus Center.
Bedford Gym took 3½ years to complete, was constructed with 92,000 recycled bricks from the old seminary building, cost slightly over $10,000 to build and was constructed by faculty, staff and students after classes and on weekends. The building served not only as a gymnasium, but also as classroom space for the music and science departments. In 1923 a hardwood floor was installed and in 1926 an indoor swimming pool, infamously nicknamed "the Bathtub," was added.
In 1952, the growing need for a new athletic facility came to the forefront but was delayed by more pressing construction. Twenty-four years later, after multiple design drafts and budget adjustments, construction of a new physical education center was finally approved. On September 8, 1978, ground was broken on the $2.6 million physical education center, and two years later, on October 11, 1980, the facility was dedicated. The physical education center was later named in honor of longtime Houghton employees, Kenneth and Doris (Garrett '71) Nielsen.
Bedford Gym was originally designed to accommodate a maximum population of 400 students; the Nielsen Center was designed to handle the current population of 1,200 students and boasted three regulation basketball courts, suspended perimeter track, auxiliary and gymnastics gym, competition-sized pool, four racquetball courts, an exercise physiology laboratory, locker rooms, class and seminar rooms, a trainer's room, storage areas and faculty offices. Over the following decades, multiple renovations and upgrades occurred, including the construction of a large indoor rock-climbing gym, construction of a 2,200 square-foot fitness center and an 800 square-foot weight room with state-of-the-art equipment.
Houghton's outdoor athletic facilities received a boost in 1998 with $1.3 million in improvements. Burke Field was constructed to serve as the main playing field for Houghton soccer and included a 1,300-seat grandstand with lights. The field was named in honor of former men's soccer coach and athletic director Doug Burke and his wife, Esther. Additional upgrades included a field hockey field, tennis courts and an eight-lane all-weather track
In November 2011, a vision for the next development in Houghton's athletic facilities was cast, made possible by a $12 million donation by Houghton alumna Kim (Kerr '91) Pegula and her husband, Terry Pegula.
The new facilities will be located on the west side of Route 19 adjacent to the current outdoor athletic complex. Recently approved designs include a field house and stadiums for baseball and softball. The field house has three main priorities: an indoor track and field facility capable of hosting significant indoor meets; a competition-quality tennis facility; and space for athletic teams to train and practice during the winter months. The outdoor fields will allow the college to host baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse and field hockey games and practices.
The initial $12M gift will be used for the development and construction of the athletics fields, including state-of-the art turf for the current Burke Field. Dedication of the baseball and softball stadiums is slated for March of 2013. The Pegula gift also serves as the lead gift in the development and construction of the project capstone, a field house.
According to H. Skip Lord '80, executive director of athletics, "The $12 million gift by the Pegulas presents a great opportunity for others to be part of the shared vision of Houghton College athletics." That shared vision began with Henry Clark Bedford's impassioned speech in 1912, the first step in a century-long development of athletic facilities at Houghton. Beginning with a $10,000 three-story gymnasium in 1913 to a multi-million dollar athletic complex, the college continues to benefit from the generosity of individuals throughout its history – those with the imagination to envision even greater opportunities for Houghton to expand its influence and achieve its mission.