HCC students admire new Beacon Hall

Article Last Updated: 09/03/2008 12:28:45 AM EDT

BRIDGEPORT — Skeptical looks were evident on the faces of Housatonic Community College students Tuesday morning as they streamed into the new Beacon Hall, past a fenced-off area where a jackhammer cleared the way for new courtyard paths.

Inside, there were extension cords to dodge and wet paint signs to avoid, but also an abundance of cushioned lounge sofas to break in and fully furnished classrooms up and, mostly, running.

"It's beautiful," declared Smith Charleston, 19, a nursing student from Bridgeport, handing out maps at the top of a second-floor stairwell in the new building.

A button on his lapel invited questions about the new student activities center, which doesn't yet have games. But it will.

A $55 million project that doubles the size of Housatonic, Beacon Hall opened on the first day of the new semester with all the essentials.

The college bookstore, wellness center, 450-seat events room and satellite cafeteria are all still works in progress, scheduled to open later this fall. Still, Paul McNamara, the Housatonic dean of administration, took pleasure in tearing up a back-up plan that would have been pressed into service had the new building not opened on time.

Good thing. HCC's enrollment as of Tuesday had already swelled to an all-time high at 4,774 students. That's 6.8 percent higher than last fall and 73 students more than the school's previous peak enrollment of 4,701 in the fall of 2004.

The new space will allow the college to accommodate up to 5,500 students.

"There's always a punch list, always things to be resolved. But for a construction project of this size, to actually get finished in such a time frame that allows you to begin a fall semester in here," said McNamara. "Let's just say we had a back-up plan but would have hated to use it."

Designed by Perkins Eastman of Stamford and built by Newfield Construction of Hartford on the footprint of an old Sears department store, the new building has 172,500 square feet, 30 classrooms, 10 computer rooms, a foreign language lab, the evening division and offices for three of Housatonic's five academic departments.

In addition to finishing the interior work, money was found in the construction budget to create walkways and lighting between the two HCC buildings, which is why students were greeted with heavy construction equipment on day one.

There is also a stack of tires in the courtyard, being prepared to create a seagull deterrent system on the roof of the new building.

Inside, common areas are still a work in progress. Walls destined to hold some of college's treasured art collection under special lighting are still blank.

Shirley Johansson, surrounded by boxes in a new Women's Center that is three times the size of the one in Lafayette Hall, wondered if it would have been better to wait until the spring semester to open.

"Because nothing is ready," said the human services student.

Few others shared her opinion.

Bryan Parker, 23, of Stratford, slouched in a cushioned lounge chair, reading his schedule. The new furniture was to his liking, as well as the walls and the textured carpets.

"It draws you in," he said. "You come in and it's like, 'Wow!' "

Parker, who previously would not have shown up an hour early for class, said there is no comparison between the new building and the old one, now called Lafayette Hall.

"The old one is nice. Don't get me wrong. But this is something like you'd see at Southern [Connecticut State] or UConn."

"I love it," added Shantana Hazel, 33, of Bridgeport, a human-services student. Hazel said the new building is student-oriented and refreshing. "I especially love the quiet rooms for when you need a couple of minutes to yourself between classes," she said.

Hazel doesn't think students, traveling between buildings will have much trouble getting to class on time. "It's not like your walking miles away," she said.

"They'll have plenty of time," agreed Housatonic President Anita Gliniecki, helping students find classes in the new building.

Housatonic was the first single building campus where she has worked before Beacon was built.

In some classes, faculty had yet to get the hang of the new equipment, like document readers that McNamara swears can zero in on the pores of your hand.

Sheila Hageman, teaching a composition course, was happy enough to find a marker and eraser in the classroom when she arrived. A half-filled paint can rested in the corner.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the HCC expansion, presided over by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, is planned for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 7 and an open house is set for Oct. 11. Housatonic is accepting late registration through next Tuesday. For more information,