A Brief History of West Hall
West Hall was the home of our department prior to our move into the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center and the Materials Research Center in 1998. While we are happy to now be located near the center of campus, we remember fondly those days on the western edge of RPI. Certainly to many of our alumni, West Hall remains the home of the department in memory. Below is a brief history of the building.
Rensselaer and West Hall have a love-hate relationship. Yes, West Hall is old and a bit decrepit. And students decry its distance from "the rest of campus." But there's no denying that West Hall has a charisma and a charm that outshines its imperfections of age and upkeep - in short, it has a history.
West Hall was the home to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, nee Geology, for the over 40 years. Yet the history of this 100-plus year-old building extends far beyond our occupancy, specifically to June 28, 1868, when the cornerstone for a new hospital building was laid by the Right Reverend J.J. Conroy, Bishop of Albany.
"West Hall" was the next step in the evolution of St. Mary's Hospital, at that time known as the Troy Hospital. The Hospital movement in Troy began in 1845, when the epidemics of 1844 and '45 compelled city authorities to erect temporary buildings and use space in the Sisters of Charity orphanage in South Troy to care for the sick. In 1848, construction began on the first "permanent" Troy hospital, on the southwest corner of Washington and Fifth Streets. Upon its completion two years later, the hospital's direction was placed under the Sisters of Charity where it has since remained.
The Troy Hospital, which became the first full service hospital in New York State outside of the New York City area, remained in this building until 1914. About this time, however, owing to rapid growth of the city and of the construction of the Union Railroad within a few feet of the building, the location was deemed unsuitable and so the site upon which West Hall now sits was purchased.
However, it seems that West Hall was destined to accommodate the cultivation of the mind rather than the healing of the body. In 1922 it was purchased by the Diocese of Albany and served as Troy's Catholic Central High School for the next 30 years.
Though its name has changed, its tradition as a place of education remained when West Hall was purchased by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Our own history here began after the Fuel Resources Department became the Geology Department and West Hall became its headquarters.
The geology department truly embraced West Hall as home, yet the building retained its character and evidence of its history. The office and museum were located in the old operating theater turned gymnasium, labs and classrooms in the old hospital rooms, rock storage in the front stairwells, and the sedimentology lab adjacent to the boiler-room in the sub-basement. Because of its history as a hospital and morgue, its dramatic victorian architecture, and its age, West Hall always invoked an image akin to the haunted house of classic horror films. Emanating noises from the steam pipes and critters in the walls aided that image. Stormy nights certainly had the ability to make the building's scientists a little uneasy, creating an atmosphere where one would expect encounters with the supernatural.
In 1998, the institute moved the Earth and Environmental Science department to the Science Center, moving in alongside the department of Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy, and the department of Biology. West Hall is now home to the purchasing department, grants and contracts, as well as a substantial portion of the Integrated Electronic Arts department.