In 1921, men's athletics relocated to the new Men's Gymnasium, vacating the University of Montana's Old Gym (built 1903) . The following year, women's athletics moved to the Old Gym. Female students and faculty noticed numerous problems with the Old Gym, including freezing temperatures in the winter, and locker rooms that failed to accommodate the University's rising enrollment.
These factors motivated women to push for the construction of a new athletic facility. In 1951, the State Board of Education provided approval and funding for the Women's Center; part of the building would be dedicated to women's physical education. The rest of the Women's Center would accommodate another growing major for female students, Home Economics.
After several years of planning and construction, the Women's Center opened in the fall of 1954. Throughout the twentieth century, the building housed courses in Physical Education and Home Economics, majors that were especially in demand during the post-war period. The building underwent significant changes during the late twentieth century; including taking on a new name, McGill Hall, in 1984. The Home Economics major no longer exists at the University of Montana; the School of Education absorbed many of the courses previously offered by this major. Today, McGill Hall continues to host programs related to health and childcare.
Building plans and construction for the Women’s Center began in the early 1950s. Much of the correspondence regarding the building involved the University of Montana President Carl McFarland. Subpar conditions in the Old Gym (built 1903) sparked discussion about building a Women’s Center, which would hold a new gymnasium for female students. Since the 1940s, there had been complaints about a number of problems with the building. During the winter, the Old Gym was freezing cold. Staff members felt that a lack of privacy--resulting from the limited number of showers in the locker room and the need to use a public stairwell--discouraged women's enrollment in physical education courses. At the same time, the physical education curriculum increasingly focused on strength and general health, preparing physical education instructors not only to teach in the school system, but also to collaborate with recreation centers and the military.
The Women’s Center also would house another program for female students: the Home Economics major. This field promoted a systematic view of household management. Home economics experts stressed the importance of health and adapting to new technology. The Montana Home Economics Association argued that educators had placed too much emphasis on science and mathematics in the 1950s. As a result, few young women were going on to teach Home Economics in Montana's schools. The new Women's Center was intended to house both the physical education and the home economics programs, thereby increasing the university's ability to prepare teachers in these fields.
On September 23, 1953, the Women’s Center had its dedication ceremony. At this event, Rose McClure Aronson and Marilyn Foster gave speeches in which they emphasized the importance of women students throughout UM’s history. The Women’s Center provided modern facilities for physical education and home economics. It boasted a ventilation system in the gym, a food lab, and an acoustic ceiling. Inside the building, there was a model home for demonstrations. The gym accommodated basketball, volleyball, badminton, and many other sports. The Women’s Center emphasized a sense of community and comfort. The building’s lounge was a popular place for students to gather, even outside of school hours. The Home Economics Club, which operated out of the Women’s Center, held fundraisers and hosted special events.
The Women’s Center continued to serve home economics and physical education majors through the early 1980s. During the latter 1980s, the home economics program began to see declining enrollment. Students’ interest in courses that focused on topics like cooking diminished. In response, the home economics department premiered new offerings on subjects like business, special education, and merchandising. Home economics gradually became absorbed by the education department, losing its designation as a major by 1988. Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 1980s several other buildings on campus, such as the Student Recreation Center and the Adams Center, were built or renovated. Physical education relocated from the Women’s Center to these other buildings. In 1984 the Women’s Center was renamed “McGill Hall,” after Dr. Caroline McGill, a pioneering female physician in Montana.
Today, McGill Hall is home to a number of programs and provides space for courses on media arts, child development, and health. Although there are no longer gym classes in McGill Hall, students still attend classes on Health and Human Performance there. The University of Montana continues to offer women students many opportunities for physical activity, including co-ed activities courses at the Fitness and Recreation Center and around Missoula. The University also features a limited number of women-only courses, like “Women’s Beginning Weight Training.” Members of the public can view the outside of McGill Hall at any time, as the University of Montana Campus is open to the community. Access to the building’s interior is limited. UM offers periodic tours of campus to prospective students and alumni.