This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Centrepiece.
In 1994, Centre completed the first part of a strategic plan to develop new Greek houses along Walnut Street and resolved a pressing need for a campus gathering space by converting an old warehouse at the end of Walnut into a student center. The building was named the Combs Center as a result of a timely bequest from horseman Leslie Combs II-1922 that helped fund the warehouse project.
Leslie Combs II-1922 was a leading owner and breeder of thoroughbred horses. He founded Spendthrift Farm in 1936 with an inheritance from his grandmother and named it for a racehorse owned by his great-grandfather. He then transformed the racing industry by syndicating thoroughbreds, which introduced previously undreamed of resources to the industry. His first syndicate was Beau Pere in 1947, when he persuaded 20 people to put up $5,000 each for a share in the horse. He later syndicated such champions as Majestic Prince and Raise a Native. He was the first horseman to syndicate a stallion—Nashua—for more than $1 million. He also brought new marketing strategies to the yearling sales at Keeneland, where he was the leading consignor by average from 1949 through 1964. Spendthrift Farm expanded from 126 acres to 6,000 acres at its peak. It was home to Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
But Spendthrift and the thoroughbred industry began to face daunting challenges.
“I don’t understand this business anymore,” Combs said in 1983. “I used to syndicate a stallion by telling my friends, the people I knew, and we’d sign a two-page contract. Now it’s all strangers and lawyers and people not trusting each other.”
In 1988, Spendthrift filed for bankruptcy and its assets were sold in 1989. Combs died in 1990 at the age of 88.
Centre’s Combs Center began life in 1902 as a hemp and grain warehouse at a time when hemp was popular for making rope. Later the Gibson Wholesale Grocery Company used it for offices and storage.
Major renovations and alterations, including the addition of an atrium skylight, transformed it into a modern student center with a large, open space on the ground floor for dances and bands and a student social area on the second floor with a grill, pool tables, video games, pinball machines, televisions, and comfortable seating. The third floor housed student organizations, including offices for the Cento student newspaper and the yearbook.
The Combs Center, often still called the Warehouse, was the capstone to the new Greek Park area along Walnut Street. Three sorority houses along one side opened with the Combs Center in 1994, with six fraternity houses added on the other side in 1995. The Combs Center’s opening concert in May featured a little-known band called Hootie and the Blowfish. Two months later, Hootie releasedCracked Rear View, which went on to become one of the defining albums of the 1990s.
After a new campus center opened in 2009, the Combs Center housed the communications office and leadership programs. The ground floor remains a popular venue for small concerts, lectures, meetings, and weddings.
by Diane Johnson
October 4, 2019