Introducing the Packer Early Learning Center
The 15-year tenure of Head of School Bruce L. Dennis has many legacies. One that will resonate for years to come is his ambitious plan for Packer’s campus, which he and the Board of Trustees have brought into being over the past decade.
While overseeing the renovation of the Science Building, the Lower School, the Upper School, and the top floors of the Middle School, Dr. Dennis and the Board also focused on Packer’s long-term future by seeking an opportunity to acquire new space. In 2014, they purchased the building at 100 Clinton Street, one block north of where Packer has stood since its founding. Their vision was to create a state-of-the-art Preschool and thereby open up spaces on the main campus for new uses.
After extensive planning with input from faculty and a two-year gut renovation, the Packer Early Learning Center opened in September. At the same time, the Hart Library was renovated and expanded and a brand-new Lower School Innovation Lab and art studio were created in the former Kindergarten space in Founder’s Hall. Both the Joralemon Street and Clinton Street projects were completed by Hudson Studio Architects, whose relationship with Packer began in 2008.
Last fall, Preschool and Lower School Head Bill McCarthy and Pre-K Threes Head Teacher Lynnette Arthur sat down on the top floor of the Packer Early Learning Center with Hudson Studio Architects principal James Wagman P’14 and architect Anne Bannon for a lively discussion about the building’s design. Alumnus Benjamin Prosky ’95, executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter and the Center for Architecture, kindly moderated on behalf of the magazine.
This version contains bonus content that does not appear in the print edition of the Winter 2019 magazine.
Ben Prosky ’95: At Packer’s beginning, the Brooklyn Female Academy was committed to introducing new and innovative learning spaces. With this building, you had the opportunity to extend that vision. For the project to reach its full potential, what aspects of Packer’s early-learning philosophy did you feel the architects most needed to understand?
Bill McCarthy: In the Preschool, our Reggio Emilia philosophy puts children at the center of their own learning. It’s about every child having incredible potential in so many ways. It’s about them expressing themselves through innovation, music, and art, and us giving them opportunities to build on that. We worked closely with Hudson throughout the process. We traded books, materials, and ideas. We created vision statements. The decisions that were made weren’t top-down decisions. The teachers in the division gave feedback on every single detail, down to rug colors and finishes.
Ben: Compared to the main campus, which is neo-Gothic with dark brick and wood paneling, this building is uncharacteristic of Packer. Can you talk about its history?
James Wagman: This building was a nondescript medical office, but it had the kind of space that the School could grow into. And the proximity to the campus was wonderful. It was Packer's first venture off campus in over 150 years.
Bill: It was the first time in Packer's recent history when a program didn't have to be squeezed into a space. In New York, it’s often the case that [school facilities are] predetermined even before construction happens.
Ben: What is possible here that wasn’t possible in the old space?
Bill: Our Preschool program has never been under one roof or even had classes across the hall from each other.
Lynnette Arthur: We have dedicated this entire building to the repurposing of materials, to cultivating a sense of sustainability. We compost, we recycle.
And the children love it here. This is their space. This is their building. Just being able to send a child down the hall into the Innovation Lab or to another classroom is new.
Bill: This is also making us think, what are the opportunities for community? Now, if you’re in the Threes, you’re hanging out not just with the Threes, but with Kindergarteners.
Ben: In terms of sustainability, the building itself (pictured above) is groundbreaking. Can you talk about that?
James: This is the first preschool in New York that has a high-performance “Passive House” construction. These big windows around us have three layers of glass and very tight gasketing so that very little air can leak in either direction. And it’s very quiet because of these windows and the way we insulated the building.
Lynnette: We do definitely notice the sound proofing. I can have a full-fledged dance party, and Shelley [Gargus, who teaches the Pre-K Fours in the adjacent room] is totally unaware of it!
Ben: If a building is leaking heat, it’s actually polluting the environment through carbon emissions. It’s also really inefficient in terms of how much it costs to cool or heat.
James: We’re using 30% less equipment [than before] to run the building.
Ben: Passive house construction is not inexpensive, but over time, it’s really good for —
Anne Bannon: Reducing your footprint.
Ben: Right. In New York City, 73% of carbon emissions come from buildings — not cars!
James: And we’re controlling and filtering the air that comes in and goes out. You’re getting very clean air, which we’re hoping will reduce the [airborne illnesses] you get with kids.
Anne: Because we were sealing things up so well, we were very careful to use low-VOC to no VOC products throughout the entire building. If we hadn’t been so careful about that, we’d be sitting here saying, “Why do we smell plastic?”
Ben: What about the finishes, the wood details?
Anne: The trees and the bench in the lobby are from reclaimed wood products, from The Hudson Company — no relation to our studio, but owned by a Packer family.
Bill: We spent a lot of time going over finishes and color palettes, having healthy debates about what made sense, what looked pretty versus what was practical.
When you walk in to these spaces, there's something very light about them. We wanted natural elements that would also complement the darker, more Gothic finishes of the main campus. With the new Hart Library, the Innovation Lab, and the new Lower School art studio, there is a continuity.
Ben: It feels like Packer.
Lynnette: We didn't want it to be a sterile building. Studies have shown that children should have spaces for the eyes to rest. A neutral palette causes low anxiety and produces a better learning environment. The pops of color that you do see are warm and comforting.
Ben: We’re in this incredible rooftop Atelier [pictured above]. Looking at it from the outside, I’d like to live in it! Why is it an important part of the Early Learning Center?
Lynnette: The central tenet of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is that children can construct their own learning. One of the key components of their development is their relationship and exploration of simple materials. Our Atelier is a space where students come to create, explore, and experience themselves through art. It’s a beautiful space, brimming with natural light, openness, creativity, and curiosity. And the space is designed so that students have direct access to materials without having to ask for help.
Bill: The materials are curated by our children, our families, and our teachers. Everybody brings things from home [to repurpose]. I carried over two bags of recycled items today.
Lynnette: If you look behind you, there are bottle caps, cardboard, corks, and things that people usually throw away. Everything on that shelf was donated by our community. We ask families to bring in interesting materials from home or work, or from time spent in nature. We like materials that are open-ended because they can be transformed and they require some imagination. Repurposing these everyday materials encourages exploration, supports creativity, and stimulates thinking. And in the process, our students make small yet impactful steps toward sustainability and participate in conservation in a meaningful way.
Bill: On admissions tours, parents will ask, “Is that an art studio?” And I pause for a second, and I say, “Art does happen
in here,” but this space is really a center for inspiration.
It’s a center for curiosity and wonder, for thinking and for collaboration, for language, for building. It’s for children
to ask questions, and for us to evoke questions from them.
Children can come up here during choice time, class time, and open studio times throughout the week. You’ll see children in small groups, sometimes just two or three working with our Atelier teacher, Robin Koo, or a classroom teacher.
Lynnette: The idea of choice time is that play is the work of children. When they’re in the block area, it’s not just playing with blocks. They’re learning math concepts, they’re learning about negotiating with a friend, they’re learning about balance, gravity, science. When they’re in any area — at the water table, in dramatic play — they’re learning to make sense of the world. They’re reenacting things and conversations that they hear at home and trying to make sense of it all.
I believe it's their right as children to have that time to explore every day. Our children get a chance to have an emergent curriculum, to come up with an idea or a common interest and explore that. It shouldn't end in Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade. Even as adults, studies show that we live healthier, more balanced lives when we have that down time.
Ben (to the architects): Were there certain elements to an atelier that you imagined — these walls of glass that open onto the roof playspace?
Anne: Yes, the glass was very important.
James: We wanted the Atelier space to be inside and out.
Bill: Students take their Atelier projects outside.
Anne: The fence design started at the very beginning of the project. The then-Assistant Head of School, Andrea Kelley, first described this space as a pelican nest. The pattern of the fence came from that idea.
Bill: [Designing the play structure] was a complicated process because we were restricted in the three-to-five age range. We wanted something that could be physically challenging for our students. We took votes.
Anne: “The slide or the climbing thing?” Remember?
Bill: We boiled it down to five essential elements. Now the kids are using it in a beautiful way.
Lynnette: The three-year-olds can hang upside down for the first time. There was no place on the main campus where they could do that, and now there is here.
Ben: The Early Learning Center has an Innovation Lab. For children aged three to five, what does that mean?
Lynnette: Think of the word innovation: the idea of creating something out of nothing, taking an idea, thinking in a way that no one else is thinking. Just in saying that, you’re describing almost every child on earth. In a developing country, a child can take a random container and turn it into a toy. [We’ve brought that perspective to] this lab, where the children can interact with materials in ways that will teach us and show us the potential.
Bill: [The Innovation Lab] isn’t limited to scientific research. It’s a place for children to think out of the box, to [formulate] those big, critical-thinking questions that can help guide their learning. Our hope with the Innovation Lab is that it’s a center of research that extends to the classroom.
We have this state-of-the-art technology. In this building and in the Lower School’s new Innovation Lab on the main campus, innovation allows children to think more broadly, to engage in the iterative process and in design thinking. This is their future and that’s the way of the world.
Ben: Kids are some of the best design critics. How are they reacting to the space?
Bill: One of Packer’s core values is joy, and this building has quickly become a very joyful place for our children and for our families. The children are showing joy, they’re showing sensitivity, and they’re coming together as a community. I think that that’s the best example of happiness. And happiness and confidence are primary factors in how children learn best.
Lynnette: Right now, everybody is just in love with the potential that the space offers. We are excited about how we are growing into it, and how it’s becoming home.
Ben: Innovation and opportunity. For architects, what better reaction could you have?