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Purchase Tunnels: A Home for Plumbing, Skating and Art

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

by Lucy Abigail Albright


A person walks along the north pedestrian tunnel, which connects with the mailroom (Photo by Lucy Abigail Albright)

From the first time Josie saw the tunnels, she knew she had found something special.


“When I went to the mailroom I was like, oh my god, this would be such a good skate spot, so I started bringing my skateboard,” said Josie, a Purchase student who asked that her real name not be used due to fear of repercussions.


The tunnels—which run from the underpass near Student Services and end by CMFT and The Performing Arts Center—have been a space for art and mischief over the years, as well as a convenient route across campus during bad weather.


But in addition to their use by skaters and artists, the tunnels play a crucial role in the functioning of campus infrastructure.


“The plaza itself is actually a roof,” Mike Kopas, Senior Director of Facilities and Capital Planning said. “Like underneath those pavers and those bricks are actually a roof membrane.”


There are four tunnels underneath the main plaza—two for pedestrian use and two for utilities—Steve Dorso, Associate Director of Facilities Management, said in an email. The utilities tunnels provide access to the infrastructure that handles hot water, plumbing, electrical, and climate control. In short, the tunnels make repairs easier and cheaper.


There are conflicting accounts about whether or not pedestrian use factored into the original plan for the tunnels. David Moyer, a class of 1975 alum, said in an email that the tunnels were meant to provide a route for students on rainy days.


But Lisa Keller, a professor of history at Purchase College, said that the tunnels were never meant to serve as a pedestrian pathway, though people have used them that way.


“At various points, [the tunnels] were blocked off and then finally closed to pedestrians because of ‘mischief,’” Keller said in an email.


In the past, the tunnels have been the site of illicit activity like drinking and served as a hangout spot for non-students. In the late 90s, kids would come from off-campus to skate in the space, University Police Chief Dayton Tucker said.


Tucker, who has been at Purchase since 2011 and became Police Chief in 2015, said that UPD used to send officers to “remove people from the tunnel,” and as recently as around 2014 or 2015, campus police kept the tunnels locked at night.


Now, though, the tunnels are starting to see some sanctioned pedestrian use. Tucker says this is partly because the mailroom and the Center for Media, Film & Theatre are now connected to the tunnels. The addition of security cameras and the refurbishment of the space has also played a role, he said.


“We went from seeing very little traffic down there to a lot of traffic. There’s always students traversing down there to actually pick up mail,” Tucker said.


Now, Purchase students can walk through the north pedestrian tunnel, pick up their mail from the mailroom, then arrive at CMFT to attend class or use the computer labs.


And as a space that Mike Kopas described as “industrial-looking,” the tunnels have attracted Purchase’s artist types, from filmmakers to photographers. Dan Valverde, a class of 1984 film major who himself shot part of a film there, recounted seeing art displays in the tunnels while he was a student. One such installation, he said, consisted of a tree that someone had cut down and brought in.


Valverde remembers using the tunnels to get to his classes in Social Sciences and Music. But he found that access to those buildings through the tunnels could be unpredictable.

Valverde said that one time someone he knew came across a room full of office supplies in the tunnels, and “helped themselves” to paper, staplers and other items.


Josie said she’s been able to get into the Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Dance and Music buildings via the tunnels. But she agrees that access can be unpredictable.


“Most times it's been okay, but it wouldn't be something that I would, like, count on I guess,” Josie said, “I've been mostly surprised at how accessible it is.”


According to Chief Tucker, only the entrances to the mailroom and CMFT are typically kept unlocked.


In the future, though, tunnel use could potentially be expanded. With the addition of card swipe access to academic buildings, a project that’s currently in the works, basement doors along the tunnel could also become entry points.


“If we did the front doors and side doors, we definitely would do that basement door,” Tucker said.


So for students who plan to use the tunnels to get to class and avoid the rain, the future looks bright.

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4 Comments


Emily E Axelrod
Emily E Axelrod
Aug 26, 2022

Class of 1994 here! We used to hang out and explore the tunnels on a regular basis. At that time I think they were technically off-limits to students but I don’t recall any enforcement, if that was the rul. We use them for recreation and not to get to any particular locations on campus.I am wondering if all the amazing student art is still on the walls…?

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Emily E Axelrod
Emily E Axelrod
Aug 26, 2022

https://www.nytimes.com/1978/05/13/archives/students-death-is-under-inquiry-unusual-behavior-reported.html

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Brett McDonnell! Yes, that was she. Alumnus Dave Stein, some other friends and I had been exploring the passages with her earlier in the day, as we often did. Wow. So sad. She was a lovely young woman. Strange to think she'd be in her mid sixties today. Thank you very much for finding that.

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In the late 1970s, a girl with whom I was friendly, although I cannot remember her name at the moment, explored the electrical utilities in the tunnels. She crawled between two charged plates and was electrocuted. All the lights on campus dimmed. At the moment we didn't know that was why they dimmed. Her body was found later. I would like to know her name, and the date of the incident, so if you find out perhaps you could leave a comment here. Thanks! Jason Rush - Purchase alumnus

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