Hidden in Plain Sight
Ken Rush’s Packer
When it comes to knowledge of the School’s art and architectural history, visual arts teacher Ken Rush is beyond compare. Here he takes The Packer Magazine on a virtual tour of some of Packer’s most beautiful spaces and reveals their secrets.
What’s hidden at Packer is really hidden in plain sight.
Packer’s campus consists of magnificent mid- and late-19th century architecture. It’s very much living today as we go about our daily affairs at the School. Even as it has been modernized to address today’s needs, it has an unmistakable atmosphere of tradition. The School has been very careful over the years, particularly in recent renovations, to respect the architectural integrity of these buildings.And these buildings have a soul. That soul lies in their initial intent and design, but also in all of the students and faculty who have walked up the front steps since 1854, when Founder’s Hall was built.
Inside, when you walk a few flights up the main wooden staircase — which, like the front steps, is original and therefore over 160 years old — you really have a sense of all the generations that have come before you.
So, too, when you enter the Chapel and sit down in one of the pews. It’s not just that you are sitting in an auditorium. You’re sitting in a very special space, in a pew made out of New England white pine that was cut and installed in 1854. They are enormous pine planks, some of them up to 18 and 20 inches in width, which were stained to look as if they were walnut, or even mahogany. Details like that tell us that the School had a magnificent vision as well as some economic restraints!
You’re sitting in the Chapel, and the pews will creak. You may not realize that in the last twenty years every pew has been rebuilt and reinforced. But nonetheless, the original wood is still what’s holding you up. Students may not find the pews especially comfortable today, but just imagine twenty years ago when they had no cushions!
You look around, and you find yourself within a space that was designed more or less to be the large and yet intimate heart of the School.
The Chapel is up on the third floor. It’s an extremely wide chapel, so immediately you feel the surround. You feel that people are around you and in the balcony. You don’t feel that you are isolated way up in front with everybody else way in the back, as you might if you were in a chapel with a narrow, more customary nave.
The Chapel’s columns are structural and made out of wood . The original building didn’t use steel or iron, or certainly not much of it. It’s more or less a masonry and timber building. So in the Chapel, the columns and the vaults, and what appear to be ribbing, are wooden supports that have been built out with lathe and essentially plastered. This is much easier material to work with. The vaulting is not structural, but because it is finished to look like stone, it appears to be structural. All the beautiful moldings around the school are also plaster, many of them original, dating back to the 1850s.
Some things are missing from the Chapel. First of all, the original windows did not look like the late-19th century Tiffany windows we admire today. The Gothic lancet shape of the windows is the same, but originally there were frosted glass panes that let in a tremendous amount of light. Two of them remain in the rear left corner of the balcony above and below the alcoves .
The Chapel went through its biggest change when the School commissioned the finest designer of stained glass in America, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to replace the frosted glass in the lancet windows. The Tiffany workshop created a series of windows running through the lancets — with the humanities and sciences to the south, or left, and Alma Mater, dedicated to Harriet Packer, to the north, or right . To the west, or front, there are three very interesting windows. My personal favorite, simply called “Hope,” is almost a pre-Raphaelite painting . The other two to the front are behind the stage: a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy and a window dedicated to a student who perished at a young age.
Facing that front wall, one may not notice one of the real treasures hidden right before us: a Tiffany-glass mosaic to the right of the stage . It’s poorly lit and needs some care, but it’s a wonderful landscape dedicated to an alumna. It depicts a New England forest, with birch trees and a sliver of a lake. That mosaic lies where once was another Gothic lancet window.
That window was filled in and the mosaic installed when Alumnae Hall was built right up against that front wall of the Chapel. To prevent the two windows behind the stage from losing their lighting completely, a lightwell was created between the two buildings. And more recently, the School installed exterior lighting for evening performances. Today, one can really only see the exterior of those windows from the English Department office.
The Tower has been in plain sight since 1854, yet hidden away for decades . Its interior has been closed for about 50 years.
From the 1850s to the very early 1900s, when the subway was built under Joralemon Street, the Tower had an observatory on top. But the vibrations caused by trains rolling in and out of the Borough Hall station made stargazing impossible. Of course in the last hundred years, the light in the city sky has increased to the point where only on the clearest night can you see more than the brightest stars and constellations, and perhaps a few planets.
The Tower has just been extraordinarily rebuilt and renovated, with a new spiral staircase made of steel and gorgeous solid mahogany windows. While it’s not yet freely accessible to students, it’s ready to be put to all kinds of imaginative purposes by the faculty and administration — whether to bring students up to draw or write poetry, or for quiet meditation, or maybe even for a small party. The views stretch across Brooklyn and Manhattan to New Jersey. I’ve brought several of my art classes up there to draw . The Upper School Astronomy Club has been up there as well. It’s a magnificent and inspiring space.
Packer is far more than a series of historic buildings and the work of fine architects, of course. Packer is a school filled with children and adults — and a few old-timers like myself.
It’s full of people, and it has all of these different functions. And it works like a living organism: there’s a flow and there’s a pace.
When Harriet Packer made her generous gift to the School, she selected an architect whom she felt could capture the spirit and intention of what would happen within that building — which was of course the very good and progressive education of young women and girls. That same purposefulness drives Packer’s vintage architecture, as well as its improvements. The buildings have a nurturing quality that comes only from spaces that have been built to make people feel comfortable and feel glad to be there.
Every time we change Packer, we need to respect those original intentions. And we have done that, even in the new science labs. Instead of being just cutting-edge and efficient, the new labs are also warm and beautiful, with the original moldings, windows, and high ceilings.
After 37 years, I know when I come to school every day, I have extraordinary spaces to receive and welcome me. And on top of that — these wonderful kids and colleagues.