The dramatic design of Mass MoCA's 'Prow'

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The spectacular observation lounge overlooking the Hoosic River and Taconic mountains at the western end of Building 6 was the product of engineering, imagination — and money. Two stories high with a balcony and a 21-foot-high, 12-foot-wide window, it is both a place to rest and the scenic climax of a tour through the museum, a trek that can now amount up to 4 miles.

It wasn't always so. "The Prow," as it's called, was originally the top two floors of the three-story, post-and-beam-style mill, with a clutter of interior columns, a stairway and two small windows on each floor looking west.

Removing the posts and a section of floor to create the two-story, open space would have left the weight of the roof unsupported and caused it to collapse.

Architects Bruner/Cott & Associates of Cambridge solved the problem, according to principal architect Jason Forney, by bracing the exterior walls with steel I-beams and supporting the roof with a steel truss. They removed the four small windows and the masonry between them to create a single, large window opening.

"The window we designed is built from aluminum with steel to support its height," said Forney. "The mullions (or vertical steel supports) reflect the patterns of the existing windows."

It is a design Bruner/Cott has used in other buildings, he said, where they wanted a window to look "extroverted," or outgoing.

They created similar vertical spaces elsewhere in the building to enliven the horizontal interiors, but nowhere near as dramatic.

Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson said it was a costly undertaking, coming in well above the average $190-square-foot cost of the rest of the renovation. Asked if he got much pushback from budget-conscious trustees, he answered: "It all balanced out in the end."

"It was one of most significant of our interventions," Thompson said. "It cut against our habit of leaving a building intact and using what we have, but it was worth it."


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