Following years of fierce student advocacy and stalled developments blamed on budgetary constraints, school officials said Collins Hall — the home to Rose Hill’s theater groups and Philosophy Department, and one of the few spaces on campus inaccessible to those who are handicapped — will finally be getting an elevator.
The project will cost about $4 million and construction is expected to begin within three to four years, officials confirmed for Fordham Daily.
Marco Valera, vice president for Facilities Management, said that the installation of an elevator within Collins will require significant renovation to the building, given its age and layout.
“There’s very little free open space where you can create a shaft for an elevator,” he said.
(There is also a separate project in the works to install an elevator in Cunniffe House, the administration building at Rose Hill, which is also currently inaccessible, Valera said.)
Collins does not currently have a handicapped accessible entrance, and as such it does not comply with federal standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But because of its age — it was built in 1904 — it is legally exempt from the regulations.
In spite of this loophole, the accessibility of Collins has been a hot button issue at Rose Hill in recent years. In January of 2013, three USG representatives drafted a resolution asking administrators to “prioritize the renovation of Collins Hall.”
A year later, USG put a human face on the accessibility issue: Emily Rochotte, GSB ’14, who was then USG’s vice president of student life, publicly discussed a heartbreaking encounter she had while assisting with a Fordham admissions event.
Rochotte said she had to tell a wheelchair-bound prospective student that she could not be actively involved in theater at Fordham because performances took place in Collins — a space with only stairs, and lots of them.
It is because of anecdotes like this that the universal accessibility of Collins is of particular concern to the three theatre groups on campus: The Mimes and Mummers, Fordham Experimental Theater (FET) and the Theatrical Outreach Program (TOP).
All three groups have the majority of their performances in Collins, which houses both a large auditorium and a smaller Blackbox theater. Many performers in these groups told Fordham Daily they have been affected by the building’s lack of accessibility.
When Rachel Sternlicht, FCRH ’17, was performing in the TOP production of Oedipus Rex in the fall of 2013, she was expecting to see a close family friend and her mother in the audience. But when the duo arrived at Collins, the woman’s mother, who uses a walker, could not get up the stairs to the building’s entrance.
They missed the performance.
“I didn’t know that they didn’t make it until after the show, when I saw all of the missed calls asking if there was any way to get into the building,” Sternlicht, an active TOP member and current outreach chair, said. “It was really disappointing.”
Sarah Skrobala, FCRH ’15 and executive vice president of USG, has been a champion of the Collins accessibility effort since assisting with the 2013 petition.
Despite the good news of an elevator installation, Skrobala wants to ensure that handicapped students can see theatrical performances while Collins exists in its current form.
Skrobala told Fordham Daily she wants to organize a performance showcase for the end of the semester, in which the theater troupes would perform excerpts from their productions in a handicapped accessible location — where people like Sternlicht’s friend could see them.
While executive board members of each group think this is an admirable idea, they do not think it should be a permanent solution.
“It would harm our shows if we can’t be in our space,” said Sarah Hill, FCRH ’17 and vice president of the Mimes and Mummers. “I don’t really think it solves anything.”
Hill and the Mimes are not just thinking about handicapped audience members. They hire professional directors for their productions, and given Collins’ physical limitations the Mimes cannot assume the risk of hiring physically disabled directors until an elevator is installed.
“We don’t ask ‘Are you handicapped’ on the application form, but I dread the day one of our directors comes to Collins and can’t physically get in the building,” Hill said. “If we can’t hire them because of that, that’s terrible discrimination and not something we want to be responsible for.”
Campus theater groups also cannot currently use physically disabled students as cast or crew members.
AJ Golio, FCRH ’16 and president of FET, was contacted last semester by a handicapped student who wanted to get involved in the club, and as in Rochotte’s case he had to tell her that this was impossible.
“Denying a student the ability to participate in the extracurriculars they would like to participate in is a pretty grievous offense, and shouldn’t be overlooked,” Golio said.
Pictured: AJ Golio and Sarah Hill.
The three theater groups will need to find an alternative location for their shows while Collins is being renovated. One location they all agree would be perfect is Flom Auditorium, a handicapped accessible theater in the basement of Walsh library.
“It’s a very lovely space that sits empty for the vast majority of the day,” said Jane Skapek, FCRH ’16 and president of TOP.
But in a bit of cruel irony, the theater groups are barred from using the only performance space on campus that is currently handicapped accessible.
Library Director Linda LoSchiavo said the policy on Flom stemmed from negative experiences in the past.
“Theater or musical events which have taken place in Flom have resulted in some degree of damage to the equipment,” LoSchiavo told Fordham Daily. “I understand and empathize that there is a shortage of space for entertainment events on campus.”
“Flom Auditorium is not a solution,” she added.
Some of the theater groups have developed their own solutions to the inaccessibility problem while they wait for Collins construction to begin. For example, TOP’s April production of Macbeth will be performed on the steps of Keating Hall.
It remains to be seen, however, how other campus performances will bridge the accessibility gap between now and when Collins is renovated.
Connor Ryan contributed reporting. Photos courtesy of John Bonazzo.