Secrets in Abbot’s Attic

There is a shocking secret hidden down on the old Abbot campus. Climb the stairs, past the Brace Center, up to the third floor of Abbot Hall and you will come to a door. This door leads to the old attic, which in the mid-1900s was converted into the Addison’s Abbot Hall Artist Apartment. Designed by David Ireland, the apartment is now a registered work of art in the Addison’s permanent collection. Artists who come to Andover for the Addison’s Artist in Residence program live in the apartment, work in the studio downstairs, and sometimes help teach some art classes during their tenure here. Enter the door and climb a winding staircase with slit medieval castle-like windows in the walls; hold on to a banister made out of rebar– the kind used to reinforce concrete – bent into whimsical shapes. At the top of the stairs, one must duck to avoiding colliding with a huge, raw-wood beam branching out like a tree limb in the middle of the room to support the slanted ceiling. It is as if you have stepped into the Home and Gardening Channel’s “Extreme Homes.” The small kitchen is the first thing to come into view after ascending the spiral staircase; black countertops, mustard-cabinets, and a galvanized steel “munching” table with square spring-green stools. To the left is the bathroom, built inside a big pipe: the outside is covered in thin vertical planks of varnished wood, but the inside has a rough concrete floor with metal walls and a drain in the middle of the space. The showerhead comes right out of the wall of the pipe, with no separation from the toilet or industrial-steel sink. To the right of the kitchen is a short hall with a six-foot tall ceiling covered with even more wooden beams. In a triangular prism-shaped nook to the right is the bedroom. The foot of the bed fills the entire opening onto the hall (there is no door) and at its head is a triangular window looking out onto the Abbot lawn. On either side is a chest of drawers, painted red, blue, yellow and black. The living room, the most open room of the apartment, is at the end of the hall, with a wooden column in the center to which the ceilings slant up from all different angles in a pyramid-effect. There are big steel chairs, sculptures in themselves, as well as the essentials—a TV and DVD player. The dining room is one of my favorite parts of the space. Across from the bedroom, it is rectangular with an arched ceiling and floor to ceiling windows—the only windows that were originally in the attic. The floor is made of galvanized steel as is the long table, which is made of three steel planks with edges cut at different angles so that the ends are zig-zagged. Coming out of the center of the table are light bulbs on poles that produce a surprising candle-light effect. In the cupboard are dishes designed specifically for the apartment by Sol Lewitt (whose huge multicolored wall designs were on display at the Addison earlier in the year.) All of the light fixtures in the apartment are simply industrial light bulbs like those sold at wholesale hardware stores like Home Depot. There are skylights of all shapes and sizes, while the floors are made of pressed bamboo and covered only here and there with small, beige rattan carpets. However, the best is yet to come: in the hall between the dining room and bedroom is another curving staircase. A little known fact about the building is that it used to be the science building of Abbot Academy, complete with observatory. You guessed it, the stairs lead up to the old observatory. It is every kid’s dream come true—your very own tower with a ceiling that opens up to the stars. The idea for the apartment was conceived by Jock Reynolds, director of the Addison during the 1990s, and David Ireland, an artist famous for his “living art” whose work is now on exhibit at the Addison. Architect Henry Moss worked on logistics to make the space “livable.” Rachel Schiller, curatorial fellow of the Addison, said, “David Ireland is known for making art by not making art. He has made pieces with dirt, brooms, chairs, toilet paper rolls… Jock approached him to design a space where the artists in residence could stay because he is known for projects such as this—he designed his own home in California, 500 Capp Street, which is viewed as one huge sculpture. She went on to add, “Abbot Hall provided the perfect space for Ireland’s work because of its puzzling history and all its great nooks and wooden beams. He likes to look at the ‘old bones of a building’ and make a sculpture out of the environment. To him, part of the art is you being there, your reaction to the space.” In the living room is a window looking not outside, but into the old gut of the building, and you can see the insulation, wires and pipes. Schiller described this as “typical David Ireland. He’s very interested in the process of making art. The dining room table and floor is purposely made out of a material that scratches and stains easily. It’s part of the ‘art of living’.” From outside, one would never suspect such an amazing space to be hidden inside the old Abbot science building. The Apartment is rarely open to the public, as it is a private residence, but will be on view for the next three Saturdays from 2-4 p.m.