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Building History

Growth and Change on Packer's Campus

Windows that overlook interiors. Ancient-looking staircases that are adjacent yet inexplicably at perpendiculars. Buildings with names nobody quite knows but whose initials grace every room number. Light that streams through stained-glass windows at all hours. A Gothic sanctuary concealing jaunty angles and sheer glass walls. A prominent tower that is nearly impossible to locate from within.

How did Packer get this way?

Though its staircases do not move, Packer is justifiably compared to Hogwarts, the labyrinthine school of wizardry attended by Harry Potter. Packer’s campus indeed has a magical, and perplexing, quality. For newcomers, walking from one end of the School to another often means straining to envision a three-dimensional picture of the campus. Almost as often, it means getting temporarily lost, turned around, or faced with an unexpected dead end. 

The New York Times’s “Streetscapes” reporter Christopher Grey wrote of Packer in 2002: “A walk through the main building is like a trip back in time.” He could have just as correctly stated that it is a trip through time, spanning over a century from the Science Building to the gym.

Clockwise from top left: a unique Middle School homeroom; glass and Gothic arches in the Belle Alenick Baier Atrium; two original wooden staircases where Founder’s Hall meets the Science Building; and the Garden exterior of Alumnae Hall, now excavated and indoors.

Deconstructing Packer

The story of Packer’s physical space begins before any of the present-day structures were built.

In the early 1850s, The Brooklyn Female Academy was less than a decade old and was housed in a new Greek Revival building on Joralemon Street [see figure 1]. At that time, Brooklyn Heights was a bucolic neighborhood dotted with stately homes, many with large gardens. Drinking water was drawn from public wells on street corners.

1 The Brooklyn Female Academy building opened in 1846. Only seven years later, it burned to the ground.

Before dawn on New Year’s Day, 1853 — five years before a water system was established in the borough — the School burned to the ground. Apparently, when the nearby City Hall bell was first rung in alarm, firefighters believed it signaled a fire from which they had just returned, and a dense fog prevented them from seeing the fire on Joralemon Street. 

Two days later, the Trustees of the destroyed Academy received a letter promising $65,000 to rebuild the School — the largest-ever gift to girls’ education at that time. It was signed by the 32-year-old widow of a former Trustee of The Brooklyn Female Academy: Harriet L. Packer. 

Though Mrs. Packer made the astounding gift in her husband’s memory, The Packer Collegiate Institute — which would be an all-girls institution for another century — remains associated more with her than with him. Indeed, for the past 103 years, Founder’s Day pays tribute to Harriet Packer in early November, on or near her birthday.

It was Harriet Packer who selected the person to design the new building, which came to be known as Founder’s Hall. Besides the gift itself, her choice of Minard Lafever (1798-1854), one of the nation’s most influential architects, was her most lasting effect on Packer’s physical character. 

2 Founder's Hall, the original structure of The Packer Collegiate Institute, opened in 1854. The Chapel occupies part of the third and fourth floors [see the Gothic windows on the building's far right]. Note the observatory atop the Tower, where Packer's young women once studied astronomy.

Lafever’s design bore little resemblance to the original building. An imposing brick structure in the Tudor Gothic style, Founder’s Hall might be an eccentric castle, with its crenellated parapets, uneven towers, off-center gables, and its mix of squared and arched windows [2]. Or, with its mismatched pair of two-story-high Gothic windows, it might be a castle that swallowed a church. (Indeed, Lafever modeled the large pointed window above the front entrance on the doorway of a 15th-century church in Rouen, France.) Architectural historian Andrew Dolkart has called Founder’s Hall “one of the earliest and most sophisticated evocations of English-inspired Collegiate Gothic, creating the educational atmosphere of Oxford and Cambridge.’’

Despite the orderly grid dividing the building’s interior into neat quadrants [3], further surprises await. Minard’s design for a two-story-high Chapel was unusual in two respects: its wide proportions and its location on the third and fourth floors rather than at ground level.  

3 Despite the eccentricities of Lafever's design for the exterior of Founder's Hall, the interior grid was orderly and remains largely intact to this day. However, of the three original grand staircases, only the left-hand one still remains.

But the labyrinthine quality that we associate with Packer today was still a long way off. Founder’s Hall, that single imposing building, was the full extent of Packer for nearly 40 years. The so-called Packer Boarding House, where students from other parts of the state and country lived, stood to the west of Founder’s Hall, toward Clinton Street [4]. Privately owned, it was not officially part of the institution.

4 The independently-owned Packer Boarding House, partially visible at the far right of this photograph, stood beside Founder's Hall until 1907. The 1887 addition is visible to the far left.

In the late 1880s, the School’s growing commitment to science education and physical education for girls led to the creation of a new building on the lot to the east, toward Court Street, where the home of Packer’s first President, Dr. Alonzo Crittenden, once stood. (He made his new residence in an 1884 townhouse on Livingston Street, which today is the Garden House.) The addition, designed by Napoleon LeBrun, echoed Mrs. Packer’s favored Gothic style [4, 5].

 

Now known as the Science Building, it housed a chemical laboratory [6], a physics classroom and lecture room, and a then-state-of-the-art gymnasium [7] to replace the gymnasium in the basement of Founder’s Hall. In fact, the archway between the two buildings, which still stands outside 180 Joralemon Street, was called Gymnasium Gate.

6 A chemistry class in 1935. 

7 A 1945 physical education class in the gymnasium of the 1887 building (now the location of the second grade suite).

In 1903 the Alumnae Association raised funds to erect a third building, this time on the site of the boarding house, which the School purchased and demolished. Designed by the son of Napoleon LeBrun, Alumnae Hall [8–10] also echoes the Gothic style of Founder’s Hall.

8 Alumnae Hall, seen at right in the drawing above, was built in 1907. That same year, the astronomy observatory on top of the Tower was dismantled, having been rendered useless by vibrations caused by the newly-constructed subway tunnel below.

9 To prevent the stained-glass windows on the Chapel's west wall from being darkened by the addition of Alumnae Hall, a small light well was created between the two buildings. The exterior of those windows are now partially visible from the Upper School English office — if one knows to look up.

10 This 1910 photograph shows the garden facade of Alumnae Hall, at right. When the Belle Alenick Baier Atrium was added in 2003, that facade became an interior wall. Today, the ground-floor windows of Alumnae Hall are part of the Upper School Office and look onto the Upper School Student Center.

Blackburne Library [11] is original to LeBrun’s plan, though not much else is. The flat roof of Alumnae Hall once featured an open-air gymnasium for student exercise [12], and the basement housed the School’s primary lunchroom until 2003 [13]. 

11 Many furnishings in the library on the first floor of the Alumnae Hall, now known as Blackburne Library, have been preserved for over 100 years.

12 At the beginning of the 20th century, active recreation on the manicured lawns of the Garden was not allowed. But the roof of Alumnae Hall, seen here in 1911, permitted regular outdoor exercise. Today it is the location of the "Penthouse."

13 For nearly 100 years, the basement of Alumnae Hall housed Packer's lunchroom, seen here in the 1940s. Today it is the Middle School Theater. 

Fifty years later, in advance of Packer’s centennial, plans were drawn up for a four-story Gothic-style building on the corner of Joralemon and Clinton Streets, replacing the School’s walled playground. However, by the time it was built [14], the facade of Pratt Hall — so named because it was principally the gift of Katherine Sloan Pratt, Class of 1898 — had been greatly simplified. Today it is the only Packer building with a modern exterior [15]. When it opened in 1957, its two main features — the Pratt Theatre and the second-floor gymnasium — added significantly to the School’s facilities. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the enclosed Livingston Gym was added to the roof.

14 A worker rests during the 1957 construction of Pratt Hall. St. Ann's Church and Parish House are visible in the background. Alumnae Hall is partially visible to the left.

15 Pratt Hall (at the far right of this composite image from 2012) houses the Pratt Theatre and main gymnasium. The Livingston Gym replaced the roof playspace in the 1970s.

Just over a decade later, Packer continued its southward expansion along Clinton by purchasing the former St. Ann’s Episcopal Church and Parish House. St. Ann’s dates back to 1869, just 15 years after Founder’s Hall, and was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. The resources necessary to convert the church into an effective teaching space did not materialize quickly. For several decades, only the church’s undercroft and the parish house were used, while the sanctuary stood empty except for Christmas pageants and other performances. At various points, the School considered selling the property. 

Fortunately, Packer ultimately secured the necessary capital, and by 2003 the campus was again transformed. In an ambitious and award-winning $23 million renovation by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, St. Ann’s Church was converted into the present-day Middle School, while the parish house became the Commons and, on the upper level, the Carol Shen Gallery. 

16 In the Middle School, a contemporary structure housing classrooms and offices gleams amid colorful Gothic details. The ambitious design won a number of awards, including a preservation award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

St. Ann’s exterior was left largely unchanged, but the interior was significantly altered: the nave became a shell for a central stack of classrooms. Passageways on the outer edges of that stack were open to nearly the full height of the building [16]. This unusual design ­— in which many interior windows look onto open spaces — reflects both aesthetic and pedagogical considerations: it preserves a sense of the structure’s vast size while also providing opportunities for faculty to observe the students in their daily routines without adult interference. 

17 The Belle Alenick Baier Atrium and adjoining patio stand in the northwest corner of the Garden, above music rooms also built in 2003. Compare to picture 10.

What's Your Favorite Space at Packer?

Because the St. Ann’s property was not quite adjacent to the School’s existing buildings, the architects enclosed the northwest corner of the Garden (where students once played basketball), creating a glass-walled atrium to link the structures [17]. 

Looking Forward

In the fall of 2014, Packer’s Board of Trustees initiated the purchase of 100 Clinton Street, a property one block north of the School [18]. The building will house Packer’s Preschool and Kindergarten. “We will be able to provide more spacious and modern classrooms that are aligned with the latest research on the developmental and cognitive needs of this age group,” said Head of School Bruce L. Dennis. 

Construction will begin in 2016, and the facility is expected to open in 2018. The space will be designed in conjunction with Hudson Studio Architects, who have guided all major renovations of the School since 2010.

18 Built in the early 20th century for retail and office use, 100 Clinton Street is a 12,000-square-foot property, with generous windows along its entire frontage and nearly 4,000 square feet of roof space.

Because the Garden House [19] and current Kindergarten Suite in Founder’s Hall will be vacated, the purchase will also achieve two important strategic and programmatic goals on Joralemon Street: giving the existing educational program more space to operate effectively, and supporting innovative teaching practices in all three divisions, particularly interdisciplinary initiatives and project-based learning. Potential uses for the space include: flexible-format classrooms, exhibition and presentation space, and spaces designed to support collaboration, research, and experiential learning. There are no plans to increase enrollment. 

19 The Garden House, a 1994 townhouse that was for many years the residence of the Head of School, will be repurposed for use by all divisions after the Preschool and Kindergarten have moved to 100 Clinton Street.

Head of Middle School Noah Reinhardt compared the present moment to a decade and a half ago when the plan to renovate St. Ann’s moved forward. “I remember how exciting it was to imagine what we could do with that new, extraordinary space — and then to actually move in and make it home. For the first time since then, we have the chance to ask ourselves how we might use the space that will open up here.” Trustees, faculty, and administrators will determine how the space can best support and transform the educational program that Packer offers, “for generations to come,” Mr. Reinhardt added.

For 170 years, Packer has been committed to providing the best education in spaces that are both state-of-the-art and beautiful. The purchase of 100 Clinton Street may be the School’s first acquisition in nearly half a century, but it is also the latest chapter in a history of meaningful growth. 

— Karin Storm Wood