Thomas Mendenhall knew of WPI and its educational philosophy long before he became its third president. He had been president of Rose Polytechnic Institute, where he succeeded Rose's founding president, Charles O. Thompson, in 1886. Three years later he was tapped by President Benjamin Harrison to head the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, a position he filled with great distinction.
Early in his tenure, Mendenhall faced head-on the controversy between those who supported the commercial operations of the Washburn Shops and those who felt them inappropriate on the WPI campus. In the showdown that followed, the commercial shops lived on, but with decreasing vitality, for some 50 years.
Mendenhall's term also saw changes in WPI's physical plant, including the construction of a new building (now Stratton Hall) for mechanical engineering and the improvement of the Power Plant, which enabled it to provide heat to the campus and power to the shops, while also serving as a steam laboratory for students.