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West Hall

Start Over

By spring 1918, when Rensselaer signed a contract with the War Department to participate in its Student Army Training Corps program, the now old Troy Hospital had turned into a wreck. Thieves had ripped out its plumbing and vandals had stolen other valuable building materials and sold them for scrap. Rain poured through huge holes in the roof. The hardwood floors buckled. But even in its diminished state, it remained a large, empty building, and that was exactly what the War Department needed. The government spearheaded an intensive restoration effort and transformed the neglected structure into a barracks and training facility for 450 student-officers-in-training in just five weeks, and it quickly became a model training camp. Within weeks, however, the armistice to end the war with Germany was signed and the building was abandoned again.

Two surges in population rescued it. In 1923 the Albany Roman Catholic diocese purchased and then renovated the building to house a growing population of local high school-age students. The chapel was torn down and replaced with a four-story addition that contained a gymnasium, a cafeteria, and an auditorium, as well as separate, enclosed “boys” and “girls” staircases on the western façade. Catholic Central High School, when it was completed in 1925, contained 50,000 square feet of floor space and served 536 students. Within 25 years attendance swelled to more than 1,500 students and, in 1952, the diocese elected to move the school north to a larger space in Lansingburgh.

Rensselaer was experiencing its own population surge in the late 1940s, aided by the GI Bill and the increasing industry demand for engineers. Enrollment rose from 932 students in 1940 to 4,485 students by 1948, so Rensselaer seized the opportunity to buy the building to relieve the overcrowding that existed in several departments. Officially renamed West Hall in 1953, the building expanded Rensselaer’s academic facilities by 12 percent and became one of the major projects in the campuswide renovation program that began that year. When it was finished, it provided 34 offices, 20 classrooms, 10 laboratories, and nine additional rooms.

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But within a decade, West Hall began to fall into disrepair and its problems mounted: inefficient heating loops, poor exterior physical condition (many of the building’s windows had last been painted in 1953), code violations, major cracks due to settlement, considerable deflections in the floors, a proliferation of ivy, sagging interior partitions, the list went on. In 1991, an $11 million project to repair all the masonry, roofs, windows, and dormers at West Hall was proposed. But after $850,000 was spent on roof repairs, the project was abandoned and West Hall entered another period of neglect.

Today Rensselaer is committed to righting this history with a restoration that is enabling West Hall to operate at full capacity as an academic building.

Home for the Arts

Inside West Hall, especially as night approaches, the shadowy atmosphere seems to lend credence to the campus legend that the ghost of a 19th-century nurse wanders its hallways. West Hall’s basement and five meandering floors present a labyrinth of corridors, art studios, and offices. Sounds like the insistent, staccato buzzing of a stairwell light, the moaning heat pipes, and the relentless gurgling of an aquarium complete the atmosphere. But there’s also laughter as several art students with portfolios walk down the hall, as a professor digitizing music in his office pokes his head out to say hello. A monitor above the aquarium shows clips from a new documentary, and posters on the bulletin board advertise upcoming events sponsored by the arts department’s iEAR Presents!, a series of performances, exhibitions and lectures featuring pioneering and emerging electronic artists.

The high-tech present mixes with the 19th century in West Hall.

“I’ve been here since 2002, and people are still saying to me, ‘Oh, there’s an arts department at RPI?’” says Kathy High, the chair of the Arts Department. Her office is a large, front-corner space on the first floor of West Hall that affords her a panoramic view of Troy. The arts department has added six new faculty members — almost doubling the size of the faculty over the last three years, which represents the Institute’s commitment to developing the arts, High says. The department currently uses the first four floors of the building. High hopes to move the department’s editing facilities and production studio, which are still in the Darrin Communications Center, down to West Hall.

“First of all, it’s really a good idea for us to have both our studios and our classrooms and our research facilities in the same area,” she says, “because oftentimes students will come and want to show us a project that they’re working on or ask about a technical problem, and just to be able to walk into a studio and work out those problems or critique a work is really essential to the teaching, and to our whole pedagogical approach of combining practice and theory.”

High also notes that the Arts Department serves as an essential link to the Troy community, both through the art work they do, which often involves the community, and also through the literal position of West Hall on the edge of campus.

The diverse nature of the arts department just fits with the unique layout of West Hall, says High, who believes being situated on the edge of the campus aptly represents the department’s role within the Institute as well. “We sort of sit slightly outside of what has traditionally been the pedagogical approach of the university, which has been primarily an engineering and science-based university. That’s changing. It’s one of Dr. Jackson’s mandates — to expand that and to include more humanities. This building has a lot of character, a lot of presence, and I love it for that.”

Montena agrees. “Rensselaer is a venerable old institution, and we would rather have a restored building that represents it rather than the kind of neglected and abandoned building that is usually in every town, that just sits there until it falls in on itself,” he says. “West Hall is architecture that people can relate to. It’s more human scale, and I think it’s a connection to the past.”

All photos on this page by Kris Qua, except where noted.
Historic photos courtesy of Rensselaer County Historical Society and Manuscripts and Special Collections, New York State Library.

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