One reason for the West Hall revival is the $150,000 Campus Heritage Initiative Grant awarded last year to the School of Architecture by the Getty Grant Program to develop the first detailed studies of the 18 buildings that compose the core of the Troy campus. Under the direction of Building Conservation Program Director Fred Cawley, faculty members Steve Bedford ’75, Bill Foulks, and others recruited graduate students and began their work with an extensive study of the building with the most complex history West Hall. “This is the only building that Rensselaer owns that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” Steve Bedford says, so it was the logical place to start.
West Hall also has served as the gateway building to the campus from the perspective of downtown Troy, and it’s been a familiar link between the city and the Institute for more than 50 years, not only for the people of Troy but for all the students and faculty who walked its halls and inhabited its classrooms. For many people, West Hall is more than just an old building in need of repair.
A report by John G. Waite Associates, Architects PLLC, the firm retained for the renovation of the exterior, while stating that West Hall “is generally in better condition than it would first appear,” also warns that “portions of the building have reached an advanced state of deterioration which require that they be addressed as soon as possible.”
Rich Montena, project manager for the West Hall renovations and planner with Rensselaer’s campus planning and facilities design, is realistic about the challenges the building presents. “Unfortunately, this building has been taken for granted for many years, and therefore it has reached a state that will be costly to restore,” he says.
Although it might be easier to demolish the oldest, least cost-efficient buildings on campus, it’s a terrible waste of resources, says Montena, because West Hall is “part of the face of the university a face that you see, that you recognize, that you connect with RPI, even though we haven’t always owned it.” The vision is for West Hall to bookend the projected arts corridor on Eighth Street along with EMPAC, now under construction and scheduled to open in 2007.
In an age of tight resources, every college and university that owns and uses historic buildings must factor in these same kinds of escalating maintenance and/or restoration costs and, ultimately, must decide on whether they should preserve their historic buildings or abandon them. Jack Waite ’64, who heads John G. Waite Associates and who has been a strong advocate for historic preservation since his student days at Rensselaer, doesn’t see the wisdom of abandoning a significant building like West Hall. His firm specializes in the preservation, restoration, and re-use of historic buildings, and has worked on the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty since the tragedy on 9/11, the Tweed Courthouse in New York City, the Assembly Chamber in Albany, and on university buildings at, among many others, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, and on Thomas Jefferson’s original buildings at the University of Virginia.
“It’s not an either/or thing,” Waite says. “You go to universities where there are great new buildings and there are also great old buildings: the two complement each other. A university should have that kind of diversity. It should have good old buildings, good middle-aged buildings, and good new buildings, and if it’s missing any one of those ingredients, it’s not going to be as rich as it could be. RPI really needs that sort of cultural background it needs the old buildings as well as the new ones. RPI has a really significant history and it doesn’t have an awful lot of buildings that exemplify that history.”
If These Walls Could Talk
A plaque on the southwest corner of West Hall reads as follows: The Corner Stone of the Troy Hospital was laid on the 28th of June 1868 by the right Rev. Bishop Conroy.
West Hall actually was the second incarnation of the Troy Hospital, the first hospital established north of New York City. The original one was started by a Dutch priest, Peter Havermans, and the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in 1850 to provide medical care primarily to poor Irish Catholics. But proximity to the clanging, filthy tracks of the Troy Union Railroad along Sixth Avenue, as well as fires in 1856 and 1859 within the hospital, inspired the Sisters of Charity and their board of governors to search for a better location. By 1866, they had located a piece of property near the center of the city, yet elevated and away from the river, located at the head of Fulton Street on the east side of Eighth Street, and belonging to Ebenezer Prescott. They purchased it for $18,000, and then commissioned the well-respected Troy architect Marcus F. Cummings to draw up plans and specifications for the new hospital building and to see that the contracts were properly fulfilled by the builders, all for the modest sum of $450.
Begun in 1868, and built of brick and Nova Scotia sandstone in the Second Empire Style and with tall, pyramidal roofs in the manner of the 17th century French architect Francois Mansart for its dominant central pavilion and two spacious wings, the new Troy Hospital boldly proclaimed its intention to be equal with not only the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the former Troy University buildings but also with its wealthy neighbors who lived on the heights to avoid the rude clamor of Troy down below. From its opening in 1871 until it relocated to Oakwood Avenue as St. Mary’s Hospital in 1914, the hospital took in all in need, regardless of background or malady the poor dying of consumption, Civil War veterans, young women hurt in the shirt factories or their men scalded in Henry Burden’s iron factories, abandoned children a policy that was unusual at the time.
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