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Standing Tall

August 19, 2011

Standing on the open scaffolding of Fiterman Hall, a yellow construction vest draped over his suit, BMCC President Antonio Pérez talks of healing and hope—and the rebirth of an institution.

“That’s what this building is really about,” he says. “It reminds us that while there are setbacks in life, there are always opportunities to come back.”

As surely everyone knows, the original Fiterman Hall, donated in 1993 by Miles and Shirley Fiterman, was destroyed in the 9/11 attack. Today, a new Fiterman Hall is rising in its place. With construction 40 percent complete, “we’re on schedule and confident that the building will be ready to welcome students as they begin the 2012 school year,” says Iris Weinshall, Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management at CUNY.

Transforming a campus

The original Fiterman Hall was the definition of state-of-the-art. “When it was gifted to us by the Fiterman family, it didn’t simply enlarge BMCC’s physical plant—it transformed it,” says Perez. “The new building will take us even further—a reminder that progress never stops.”

The 15-story, 400,000-square-foot building will house a first-floor art gallery, 65 classrooms, 35 computer labs, 130 offices for faculty, library spaces, atriums, open stairways, and several large assembly and performance rooms including a conference center on the top two floors and a double-high choral ensemble space.

The design also makes liberal use of open area where students and faculty can mingle and collaborate on projects. The exterior panels will be a blend of precast panels with architectural brick and curtain wall and the entire structure will contain some 4,400 tons of steel. While little of the original structure could be preserved, the new building incorporates most of the existing foundation walls. ¿

But the architectural specs tell only part of the story. “This will be a spectacular building and a great addition to downtown Manhattan,” says Weinshall, who adds that the building’s distinctive glass-and-brick curtain wall “will create an iconic look, identifying Fiterman as an academic structure sharing a strong kinship with our 199 Chambers Street building.”

“Glass lets people in”

Among the building’s most striking architectural features are its multi-story glass atriums with circular stairways “that will be visible through the glass façade from the street—dramatically so, at night,” Weinshall says.

The idea is to open the building to the community, both visually and functionally. As Weinshall puts it, “Glass lets people in.” Many of the building’s facilities, including a world-class art gallery, and a café, will be available to the public.

“Watching this iconic building rise gives compelling evidence that CUNY remains committed to lower Manhattan,” Weinshall says. “We want to be even more a part of our community than ever before—and this building allows us to do that.”

In recent years, CUNY has engaged many of the world’s foremost architects for its construction projects. Fiterman Hall is a case in point, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, whose best-known works include the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston’s John Hancock Tower, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York and Museum in Cleveland, and the expansion and modernization of the Louvre museum in Paris. 

Connecting with the community

“Our buildings stay in our inventory for a very long time, so it makes sense to involve the best architects in their design,” Weinshall says. Many CUNY buildings, and notably BMCC’s, front on city streets, making it important that they enhance both the existing campus and the surrounding urban cityscape, and connect with the local community.

Minimizing Fiterman’s environmental impact is also a compelling priority for the builder, Hunter Roberts Construction Group of New York. 

“This is a ‘green’ building in the fullest sense of the term,” says Hunter Roberts project executive Sean O’Connor, looking out over a setback that will eventually be landscaped with grass and shrubbery. “A commitment to sustainable, environmentally-sound design review and construction is an integral component of our corporate culture.”

Notwithstanding the firm’s extensive portfolio of projects, “having a role in giving back educational facilities that were lost on September 11 is special,” O’Connor says. “It’s an honor to be part of this.”

Looking back—and ahead

These are exciting times for BMCC. But even as Perez looks ahead to Fiterman’s 2012 opening, he can’t help recalling the horrific day when Lower Manhattan—and the world—were changed forever.

“The months and years that followed were difficult for us,” he says.  “We had to close the school for three weeks; later, we had to carve up the college and teach classes in trailers in order to continuing serving our students.”

But once BMCC reopened, it stayed open.  “We had an enrollment of 16,700 students in 2001,” Perez says.  “Today we have over 24,000.  Classes take place from seven a.m. to 11 at night, seven days a week. We’re a campus that never closes.”

The trailers are long gone from BMCC. And close to the concrete and steel canyons of lower Manhattan, the new Fiterman Hall, “just 16 stories high,”  says Perez, “will stand tall among the surrounding giants.”

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  • 1959: Fiterman Hall constructed as an office building
  • 1993: Donated to BMCC by the Fiterman family
  • 2000: Major renovation of windows and infrastructure
  • September 11, 2001: Fiterman Hall heavily damaged in terrorist attack
  • November 2009: Demolition of Fiterman begins
  • December 2009: Ground is broken on the new Fiterman Hall
  • June 2010: Construction begins
  • September 2012: Fiterman Hall opens

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