By Matthew Grattan (ChE ’19)
Photo by Winter Leng (ChE ’18)
One of the most iconic features of the New Academic Building is the Grand Staircase, which stretches from the first floor lobby to Frankie’s café on the fourth floor. It is also arguably the most hazardous. The staircase has notoriously been the site of few slips and falls, some of which have been caught on security camera. In one particular video from 2011, a student begins to fall down the stairs but is fortunately caught by another student, preventing serious injury.
In a 2009 architecture review published in the New York Times prior to the opening of 41 Cooper Square, the author Nicolai Ouroussoff, writes that a “subtle but important problem is the depth of the treads on the grand staircase.” Besides being “hard to sit on,” Mr. Ouroussoff, remarks that, “they gave me vertigo when I began my descent from the third floor.”
At its widest, the staircase measures around 20 feet.
According to Professor Wolf, the Campus Safety Coordinator, “if you were to look up ordinary code requirements for staircases, there’s only so much width you can have before you need [additional] handrails.” The Grand Staircase goes “far beyond” that limit. So how has it evaded having a third handrail down the center? Technically, it’s an ornamental staircase designed by the building’s architect Thom Mayne from architecture firm Morphosis.
Additionally, the side handrails already in place do not run orthogonally to the stairs. That is to say if you are using the handrail, you might find that the railing is angled inward or outward from the staircase, which forces you to ascend or
descend at an awkward angle. This poses a potential tripping hazard for those who depend on railings to negotiate stairs.
If you have ever used the hand rails, you might have noticed that the metal rods, which support it, stick out at odd angles and force you to pick up your hand to move past the support. If you have not noticed this nuisance, give it a try. It is a tricky game to play.
The stairs themselves are constructed from polished concrete, which is nearly too slippery for conventional use. For those who know a little physics, the polished concrete stairs have a measured coefficient of friction just above the minimum acceptable limit, “but that was on a dry day,” added Prof. Wolf.
Furthermore, since the grand staircase is ornamental, it cannot be used as a means of egress in the event of an emergency. In fact, gates will drop down to block access to the grand staircase and route people to the proper exit staircases.
Despite its ornamental status, there have been initiatives to install a third rail for quite some time now. Both a recent interview with Prof. Wolf and an interview with former Vice President T.C. Westcott in the February 2012 issue of The Pioneer suggest that there were concerns about safety seemingly since the staircase was constructed.
Plans for the third rail seemed to gain momentum in early 2012. According the interview with former Vice President T.C. Westcott, the “worst case” scenario was that the new handrail would go up “in the summer” of that year. In March 2012, the official grand staircase handrail design by Thom Mayne was published in The Pioneer alongside exceedingly creative student designs. (You can find the designs on pages 7 and 12)
It seemed that finally the Grand Staircase would have a functional waterslide, or a grinding rail for skateboarders, or at the very least a safe and easy-to-use railing down the center. However quite apparently, such was not the case. According to T.C. Westcott in The Pioneer’s follow-up
interview from October of 2012, Cooper at that time was still “on the eve of getting the final certificate of occupancy” for the New Academic Building. Because obtaining a final certificate of occupancy is a lengthy process, which requires there to be no open work permits (among several other things), the administration was hesitant to file such an extensive work permit. That final certificate of occupancy is still pending even today, according to Professor Wolf in an email.
The paperwork was not the only impediment to the third rail. According to an interview with Prof. Wolf, The Cooper Union reached out to several engineering firms to contract Thom Mayne’s handrail design. All of them turned down the job. The issue is that the potential rail would ideally have to be tied into the steel underlying the grand staircase, but that steel is difficult, expensive, and time consuming to access. A suboptimal alternative would be to drill holes in the preexisting concrete, install the railing, and backfill with more concrete. Extensive use would cause this alterative solution to wobble over time.
According to Prof. Wolf and confirmed by Jody Grapes, former Cooper Union Facilities Director, the third hand rail was ultimately turned down because the job itself was complicated and expensive and the Cooper Union administration at the time was “not eager to delay [the final certificate of occupancy] for the building by opening another job that would have to be filed.”
Since Cooper’s final certificate of occupancy for 41 Cooper Square is still pending, any new plans for a handrail may have to wait until later. Until then, let’s hope there will either be very few tumbles or very agile Cooper students.