Like many other universities around the country, the University of Houston was severely impacted by World War II. The school lost over half of its enrollment to the war effort but was able to plant a seed that eventually helped UH to evolve into the Tier One institution we know today.
The Navy was already conducting vocational classes at UH before Pearl Harbor. But the events of that infamous day helped speed along another project. Using mostly Navy money, UH agreed to build a rec center to be used to train recruits in war production as well as to provide logistics for physical education and meals.
With enrollment plunging as men entered the service (nearly 2500 were enrolled in fall 1941 but that number fell to just 1,015 by spring 1944), the Naval agreement would prove to be forward-thinking from President E.E. Oberholtzer.
In early January 1942, construction crews began working 24 hours a day to finish the new UH Rec Building. On March 12, just 60 days after construction started, the Navy moved into the Rec and began using it for a new crop of recruits that had arrived on March 2nd.
For 4 years, the Navy occupied 95% of the building leaving just a little room for student organization offices. But after victories on two continents and an end to hostilities, the Navy no longer needed to be at UH. Shortly after V-J Day, the Department of War made plans to withdraw their large presence from campus.
When the Navy left in 1945, UH gained control of the building and put it to the use they had always intended. The school named it the Cougar Den and it would become a student lounge and gathering spot. Thanks to the GI Bill, returning vets flooded the campus and made quick use of the Den. By the fall of 1946, enrollment had soared to over 10,000 including over 6,000 veterans – UH had become the 2nd largest university in Texas.
For 25 years, the Den served as the hub of the University. It housed a bookstore, a cafeteria, student activities offices, the school’s jukebox, and hosted thousands of events – from concerts and dances to pep rallies and more. With so few buildings or places to meet in the 1940s and 50s, life on campus revolved around the Den.
Because of the fast-paced construction, the building started to deteriorate beginning around 1960. A few years later, a plan to replace the Den had been agreed upon and construction began on a new University Center. By the summer of 1967, the UC had been completed and was ready to replace the Den.
But for 25 years, from servicemen to the children of working-class Houston, the Den was the place to be on campus. Find our full gallery of Cougar Den photos below.
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Cougar Den Photo Gallery
Note: I went through 25 years of Houstonian yearbooks and dozens of articles in search of photos for this story. Below, you’ll find an extensive gallery of Cougar Den photos and really, life at UH from the 1940s-1960s. Click through the slides to get more information on each.
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