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  • Nina Martineck

The Vibrance and Resilience of Higgins Hall

Due to the amount of time Pratt architecture students have spent within the walls of Higgins Hall, most of us would claim that we know every inch of it. Perhaps unintentionally, as if it were an overplayed song, we’ve memorized the lingering smell of Zap-A-Gap, the strange pacing needed to descend the Pit’s stairs, how many pieces of chipboard we can squeeze through the vestibule without getting stuck. However, despite the hours we’ve spent hunched over our desks and crammed into brick corners, we probably know much less about Higgins than we think we do. Laced with tragedy and intertwined with Pratt from inception, each chapter of its convoluted history is simultaneously legible, and we have yet to read them all. In 1863, two decades before Pratt was founded, philanthropists and teachers Aaron Chadwick and Dr. Edward S. Bunker opened Adelphi Academy at 412 Adelphi Street in Fort Greene. As the school expanded, it outgrew its tiny townhouse, so in 1867, three philanthropists donated the funds to build a new Adelphi Academy, including our very own Charles Pratt. Enlisting the help of architecture firm Mundell and Teckritz, they commissioned the first wing of the new Adelphi Academy, what we now know as Higgins Hall North. The south wing, which would become Higgins Hall South, was designed by Charles Haight in 1889. The buildings epitomize a subdued approach to Romanesque Revival, favoring molded arches and unfluted columns over bold turrets and spindles. Though the school’s benefactors were wealthy, the architecture fits a nineteenth-century definition of utilitarianism, delineating a clear orthogonal plan with generous circulation and high ceilings. Its flourishes are refined, filling the gaps without creating the gaps that need to be filled. After Adelphi Academy’s enrollment dropped from a peak of 1200 to near 300, they relocated to Bay Ridge. The old location on St. James Place somehow ended up in the hands of John Higgins, an architect and Adelphi Academy alum. In 1965, after his death, his wife donated the buildings to Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture. Things carried on as usual in Higgins until mid-1996 at four AM. The fire is thought to have started in the basement, somewhere near North’s boiler rooms. A fierce windstorm likely spread the flames up through Center and into North and South; the details are foggy, however, because Center collapsed into the basement and prohibited any beneficial investigation. The archives were destroyed, leading to a gap in Pratt’s School of Architecture records that has yet to be patched. Fifth-year thesis work took the brunt of the damage, though every year suffered. Classes were relocated to Main Campus, final presentations were suspended, and Pratt reeled from its losses. Rogers Marvel Architects had already been working in Higgins, focusing on conservation and remodeling projects, but their efforts immediately shifted from dusting off cornices to ensuring the building would not cave in. As they sifted through rubble, they noticed something: During the midcentury’s fondness for a complete lack of ornament, people had shrouded Higgins in plywood, gypsum, and plaster. These sheet materials burned away during the fire, revealing the masonry behind it relatively untouched. They discovered archways over entrances, capitals atop columns, and stunning brickwork. Nestled in this old brickwork, they found burn marks that could not have been left by the 1996 fire, meaning that this was not the first devastating fire that Higgins Hall had seen. After rummaging through records and analyzing the scars of the first fire, Rogers Marvel’s team determined that in 1889, the same year Haight’s South Hall opened, Adelphi Academy caught fire. Most details, including the cause and intensity of the flames, remain unknown. We do know that the damage was so severe that classes temporarily relocated to an apartment building owned by Charles Pratt while William Tubby, best known for designing Pratt’s library and student union, led the repairs and remodeling. History aside, there was a hole in late-nineties Higgins. As Rogers Marvel focused on revitalizing North and South, Pratt commissioned starchitect Steven Holl to redesign Center. Holl himself led the design team, using the misalignment of the floors in North and South to drive an exploration of dissonance, presented in the duality of the facade and the bent floors connecting the buildings. In typical Holl fashion, calibrated light diffuses over studio desks, and sawtooth skylights illuminate that lucky studio of grad students. Higgins Hall Center sits atop six concrete pillars that emerge from the hole created by the old Center’s collapse. This hole was merely finished off and called the Pit, now a pinup space and entrance to the auditorium. The rubble excavated from the Pit would become the new front courtyard and build up the back viewing deck above the auditorium that no one has ever seen used. Some consider this a clever reuse of otherwise useless material; others find it eerie, taking their classes beneath the charred bones of a building that existed before they enrolled. Meanwhile, the Rogers Marvel team continued their revitalization efforts. Their original plan, set into motion before the fire, was completely reinvisioned; a project meant to take a few years ultimately took ten. In addition to restoring their architectural discoveries, Rogers Marvel dealt with the holes in the floors. As the fire had burnt through entire portions of the buildings, they decided to leave most of these as double-height spaces. Most notably, between the fourth and fifth floors in South, the historic cast-iron staircase gives way to a nearly precarious steel staircase dangling between the floors. When the original staircase burned away, South’s fifth floor became entirely inaccessible, so they built the new stair from scratch to remedy this. They tried to use salvaged materials in as many ways as possible: They repaired windows, replaced lighting, and reconfigured classrooms to better compliment Steven Holl’s Center. Though many associate Holl with the revitalization of Higgins, Rogers Marvel Architects did most of the heavy lifting. Without them, the buildings would not have survived to see Holl’s addition. Today, Higgins Hall is an X-ray. It depicts each stage of its existence in one way or another, from the cornerstone placed in 1867 to the latest basswood stick accidentally Lock-Tited to the floor. 3-D printers lean against Adelphi Academy’s original blackboards. Steel beams from an astronomy class’s telescope glide over a crit space. The students of Adelphi Academy have etched their names into the walls aside the burn marks from the fires and nicks from stray Olfa blades. Because of this, Higgins Hall might be the best place to learn about architecture—it is a timeline with thousands of points that have yet to be added, both those that have been lost to time and those that we haven’t created yet. However messy, disjointed, and scarred Higgins may be, its secrets offer solace: Even on our worst days, we couldn’t possibly tire of its emphatic chaos.


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