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The Architecture of the Buildings of Brig-Wallis Prep School, Part 3: Merchant House

Merchant House

At the northwestern corner of the Brig-Wallis Preparatory School campus sits the wing of the Quad known as Merchant House. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, this part of the campus grounds had served a local merchant as both business site (with storefront) and family residence. According to the building's original functionality, the ground floor was used to conduct business of the day (there were, at various times, multiple retail stores on the ground floor). A spacious, high-ceilinged first floor contained the merchant family's living quarters. It included kitchens, living area, library, and master bedrooms. A second floor, beneath the rafters of the roof line, contained unheated, unplumbed, dormitory-style sleeping areas for the children and guests. Beneath the ground floor lay a fully functional basement which was used for dry storage, both personal and mercantile. The basement had below-ground road-side access near its west end. The west end is also where access ports for coal and other heating materials existed for the various basement-level heating systems used over the course of the two centuries. The property, which measured slightly more than an acre and cast a nearly-square rectangular shape to the south of Polenstrasse, grading up the slight incline of the subAlpine foothills toward Simplon Pass, contained a single outbuilding: a three-sided storage barn--more of a large lean-to--which served to shelter animals, transportation aides, and mercantile overflow.
     When the presiding merchant died in 1792, the family had tried to keep the business running. By the time the agents representing the Order found the location at the end of 1806, the business and storefront aspects had ceased to be active and only one family member remained onsite--this, the 91-year old widow of the most recent merchant, and she living in a pitiable state of unsightly squalor. The unsolicited purchase and sale of the now three-story house and the single acre of property on which it sat at an above fair-market price, had been a surprise boon of relief to the widow's children and grandchildren.
     While the campus' Quad-style design underwent construction from 1807 to 1810, the merchant family's house took on the function of residence, classroom, and feeding site for the student body and some staff members--though for the first 135 years of the school's existence, many of the school's staff members came from off-campus residences where they had families and even other jobs in Brig-Glis. As a matter of fact, the only staff members who lived on the school's campus the were the headmaster and the two or three other full-time teachers. Student populations during the first 50 years of the school's existence ranged from three to 12 students, total, with perhaps one or two per year matriculating either out into society or into apprenticeships with Order members or Order-sponsored organizations. When the original construction of Facilities Hall was completed late in 1808, student residences and most classroom education moved out of the former merchant's house into the first floor above ground of Facilities Hall. With the completion of Châtelaine Hall in 1809, the merchant house--by now being called "Merchant House"--became solely relegated to staff housing and food services. With the completion of the neo-Gothic Aubrey Hall in 1812, campus kitchens and food service was moved to the ground floor of Facilities Hall while the residential space proffered by Aubrey allowed for an opening up of student population. This in turn demanded a larger in-residence adult population--which naturally became housed within Merchant House.   
     In the third decade of the nineteenth century, Merchant House went through a cosmetic remodel to strengthen its core as well as to modernize its exteriors. On its Quad-facing exterior it was made to match the Collegiate Gothic styles of Aubrey, Châtelaine, and Engineering Halls while the previous structural organization remained fairly unaltered. There remained a full basement, which continued to be used for storage as it had by the merchant family, but was now shored up with new columns and beams and poured concrete floors and walls. The outside access to the basement level from Polenstraße was sealed, filled, and virtually erased from memory.
     The modern-day concrete and stone u-shaped switchback staircase at the building's east end was installed in 1848, preceding the planned construction of the headmaster's residential and office spaces in the Flamboyant Gothic Gatehouse built over the campus's Polentrasse entrance.
     The current apportionment of space provides for two squash courts and an archery range in the basement as well as the building's boiler room heating system. Above ground, on the rez-de-chaussée, there exists four three-room apartments with individual bathrooms serving as teacher's quarters. On the first floor there is one six-bedroom full-floor suite which is designated for use by third-year students. The second floor contains four small bedroom-efficiencies, two on each side of the building, with a shared bathroom between each of the pairs of rooms. These latter rooms were generally designated for use for guests and upperclassmen (fourth year students).
     With the completion of the campus's self-contained quadrangular enclosure in 1810, all traces and signs of external access points to/from Merchant House were removed. Other than emergency window escape routes, and the small coal-loading portal in the coal cellar of the building's west end, next to the boiler (later sealed with the conversion to oil, and, later, natural gas), the only ingress and egress points to the building were through the Quad-side staircase and then to Polenstrasse through the main entrance beneath the Gatehouse.


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