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Renovating a Classic Campus
Linsly-Chittenden Hall—known familiarly as Linsly-Chit, or just L-C, to generations of students—has long been one ofYale’s best-known, if least-loved, campus landmarks. Ill-lit and poorly maintained, it was a warren of confusing public spaces, shabby offices, and uninviting classrooms. But on the first day of classes this semester, a returningundergraduate walked up to a woman standing by the front door and asked, slightly bewildered, “Is this L-C?”
The woman—Joan Goody of the Boston architecture firm of Goody, Clancy & Associates—reassured the student that there had been no mistake, but she was not surprised by the question. Over the previous 15 months, Goody’s firm had carried out a top-to-bottom, $22-million renovation of Linsly-Chittenden. The makeover included raising part of the roof for new faculty offices, packing the expanded basement with new technology, and giving the High Street façade a new formal entrance. As the academic year began, L-C was—to the delight of virtually everyone—not its old self.
Remarkable as it is, the Linsly-Chittenden project is only part of a massive campaign—which could exceed $1 billion over a period of 20 years—to bring the look of the Yale campus up to the level of its academic reputation, while retrofitting the buildings with the most modern of equipment. “For years we’ve been used to making excuses for the way things looked around here,” explained a veteran librarian to a lunch companion at Mory’s last month."Now everything is looking great—Sterling, the Law School, Linsly-Chit. You say, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s supposed to be!’”
Such sentiments are being echoed at high volume by both the students and the faculty members who now pass through Linsly-Chit. A curious hybrid of Romanesque Revival and Collegiate Gothic from the turn of the century, the building now has, in addition to its new High Street entrance, an unusually attractive handicapped-accessible ramp, a new tiered lecture hall boasting data ports and electrical outlets at every seat, and upgraded audio-visual systems and lighting. According to the architects, L-C is now “Yale’s most sophisticated building.”
But equipment and technology are only part of the story. According to Goody, the University insisted from the outset that the renovation “maintain the traditional architectural character of the undergraduate teaching spaces.” To that end, most of the technological improvements are tucked out of sight inside floors, walls, and ceilings, while the old chalkboards—which were removed, refurbished, and then reinstalled—provide reassurance that the character of the classrooms remains intact. Where new hallways have been constructed or old corridors have been extended, their new oak-veneer paneling looks practically identical to the solid oak of the original halls. Where windows have been replaced, the new panes recreate the appearance of the old. A few faculty members and administrators have suggested that their redone offices are overly redolent of those from a century ago, but, explains Arch Currie, Yale’s director of project management, “The prevailing view is that authenticity is good, and modern is not.”
In L-C, Goody observes, “some people liked the classrooms and the cozy, old feeling.” But the old building had annoying flaws. Almost the only place for students to sit while they were waiting for meetings with professors was on the floor. The circulation system, Goody notes, was “chaotic,” a consequence in part of L-C having served, prior to construction of Sterling Memorial, as the University’s main library, with some 15 different levels. The architects inserted new corridors to clarify the circulation and then made them look as if they had always been there. In addition, they installed high-backed, built-in bench seating at the ends of hallways. Looking at these comfortable, old-fashioned nooks, someone new to Yale would assume they were present when William Howard Taft, Class of 1878, walked the campus. Even the altered High Street entrance does not look brand-new; its materials and styling evoke the 1890s.
In the architectural profession and in American culture as a whole, affection for old ways runs especially strong right now. Purposely understated transformations like Linsly-Chittenden's—modernizations in period dress, some of them might be called—are happening at numerous locations across campus—at Berkeley College, Sterling Memorial Library, Payne Whitney Gymnasium, and the Law School, among others.
“Like many colleges in the 1970s and 1980s, we had a period of deferred maintenance,” University Planner Pamela Delphenich acknowledges, using the favored euphemism for neglect. In the 1970s and 1980s, the thinking was that money needed to be spent to expand the faculty, raise salaries, and pursue other critical objectives. The assumption in some quarters was that a few years of indifference to the physical plant might not be such a bad thing. “The buildings were so beautiful and so substantial,” Delphenich says. “Yale thought they would be more forgiving.”
They were not. After the evidence of deterioration became too great for administrators—let alone applicants and their parents—to ignore, the University started to change course. “In the late 1980s, when Benno Schmidt was President, Yale realized it was time to pay the piper,” says Delphenich. That marked the beginning of a long, complicated process of determining how extensive the physical needs were, establishing priorities, figuring out where the money for repairs and improvements might come from, setting realistic schedules, and finding qualified people to do the work.
As a first step, architects and planners (including such high-profile New York firms as Cooper, Robertson and Partners; Polshek Partnership Architects; and R. M. Kliment and Frances Halsband Architects) were commissioned to study selected areas of the campus and draw up schedules for implementing their proposed changes. Because Yale’s buildings span such a wide spectrum of architectural history, the renovations required a huge variety of custom work. For example, putting a new roof on the Yale Center for British Art—architect Louis Kahn’s 1971 late-modernist gem—requires a different set of skills from bringing back buildings that are more than a century old.
To overcome Yale’s sometimes fractious relationship with New Haven preservationists, Delphenich began meeting about two years ago with leaders of the New Haven Preservation Trust, seeking a consensus on which Yale-owned buildings should be restored or renovated and which might be demolished. An agreement signed last February committed Yale to renovating or restoring several buildings—most notable among them the Davies Mansion, a French Second Empire house on Prospect Hill that has stood vacant for more than 20 years. Some preservationists are still unhappy that a rundown, much-altered 1836 house designed by Alexander Jackson Davis is to be razed and that a portion of the Yale Divinity School complex is to be taken down as part of the School’s adaptive reuse plan. But Robert Grzywacz, a Trust official, said the agreement with Yale seemed “the most appropriate way to apportion the resources.”
Conventional wisdom holds that donors are much more willing to give money to erect new buildings than to fix up what already exists, especially when the fixing-up is supposed to be invisible or look just like the original. The reality is less clear-cut, says Joseph P. Mullinix, Yale’s vice president for finance and administration. For major gifts, Mullinix says, the biggest thing donors want is “to show that ‘I can make this happen, and this is important.’” But he now feels that sentiments are changing. By bringing vintage buildings up to today’s standards, he argues, “people realize that they are essentially perpetuating an experience, both esthetic and social, that couldn’t possibly be replicated in a new building.”
The monumental project under way at Sterling Memorial Library seems to bear out Mullinix’s faith in the appeal of rehabilitation. With the help of major gifts, the plastic storm windows in the Main Reading Room have been removed, and the original leaded-glass windows have been restored. “We spent more than $1 million just on windows in this room,” says Carolyn Claflin, director of library development. Chandeliers have been restored and fitted with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. Furniture has been restored or has been designed to be compatible with traditional pieces. The room has been designated the Starr Main Reference Room in honor of its principal contributor, the Starr Foundation. About 60 other donors have been recognized in some way—most by having their names inscribed on a part of the room or its furnishings.
The periodical reading room has undergone similar improvements, largely through the support of Richard Franke, the senior Yale Corporation trustee, who also established a challenge grant of some $9 million to upgrade the book stack tower. That undertaking—carried out by the venerable Boston architecture office of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott—is a renovation saga in itself. The four million volumes in the 16-story stack tower were beset by leaks in the roof and walls, broken windows, and the absence of adequate temperature or humidity controls. “We literally tore the outside skin of the building off,” University Librarian Scott Bennett notes. Only by removing the stone veneer, installing modern building systems that stop moisture infiltration, and then reinstalling the stone could the library solve the problems. That work was combined with the enormous task of installing weather-tight windows. “Every window—there are more than 1,000 windows in the book stacks—was replaced,” says Bennett. (Among the other improvements is an elevator big enough for large book carts, wheelchairs, or, in a medical emergency, a gurney.)
Through all of the library work, “we have been scrupulously loyal to the original design,” Bennett says. Not surprisingly for a campus brimming with as many opinions as Yale’s, scattered criticisms can be heard. Some consider the chandeliers in the periodical reading room to be overbearing. There are those who think the row upon row of new metal table lamps in the Main Reading Room are awkward and obtrusive. But the general response attests to the popularity of what’s been done. “If you come into the Main Reading Room, it’s packed,” Bennett notes.
The improvements also expanded the library’s offerings. By roofing over an unused courtyard at the heart of Sterling with the help of Gothicizing steel arches, the University’s architects have made room for the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, liberating the School of Music’s collection from its previous—and frequently flooded—semi-subterranean quarters on Wall Street. “We think we’ve designed a contemporary facility, yet we’ve designed it with respect for the Gothic structure of Sterling Library,” says Jon Ross, of Shepley Bulfinch.
Whether the work is strict renovation or the sort of interpretive addition involved in the music library, timing is critical. In the past, Yale has carried out much of its physical plant improvements over the summer, when residence halls and classrooms are empty. But this limits the size of the projects that can be taken on. “You can never do floors,” explains Larry Regan, the Yale staff project architect supervising renovation of Berkeley College. Indeed, sanding and sealing wood floors and giving them time to dry in a dust-free environment requires more time than can be carved out of a 12-week construction season jammed with other repairs and improvements.
Linsly-Chittenden was envisioned as a two-summer project. When the scope of the work grew to the point that it demanded three summers, the construction manager, Dimeo Construction, of Providence, R.I., successfully argued that the University would be better off moving everyone to temporary quarters for 15 months and doing the entire project at once—saving the time and money that would have been spent in repeatedly starting and stopping such a major undertaking. Amazingly, Sterling Library continued to operate even while workers were pushing wheelbarrow loads of construction materials into the elevators and through the stacks.
The Center for British Art, on the other hand, has been closed for all of 1998 rather than try to present exhibitions while workers were rebuilding the roof, repairing the air conditioning system, and remedying miscellaneous wear and tear.
No such alternative was available for the residential colleges. Persuaded by the costly rush involved in the 1990 renovation of Calhoun College that another approach was necessary, the University two years ago decided to build a “swing dorm,” a sort of spare-tire facility that could accommodate the entire population of each college as it came up for repairs. Students from Berkeley College are the swing dorm’s first occupants, and their old home is now swarming with construction workers.
Surprisingly, perhaps, finding the trained people capable of working on buildings of the quality of Berkeley and the BAC does not seem to be a problem. Many in the construction trades revel in tackling fine works of architecture, despite the sometimes difficult logistics and the inevitable unexpected discoveries. In the modernization of a classic like Linsly-Chittenden, “there were no inexpensive shortcuts,” says Lee Blackwell, the project superintendent for Dimeo Construction, who had as many as 125 workers in the building at a time. “Whether it’s electrical conduits or heating, ventilating, and air conditioning that’s being installed, beautiful wood is going to be restored to go back over it, to make it look as if those systems were always an integral part of the building.” Looking at that project on one of the final days of construction, Blackwell praised Yale’s commitment: “They spent the money.”
Meanwhile, Linda Peterson, chair of the English Department, which moved back into L-C this fall, admitted that while the faculty members were in their temporary offices in a New Haven office building, “everybody wondered if the renovation would be a letdown.”
Elation seems to be the mood of the moment. “It’s such a pleasure to be in the building now,” Peterson says. “Now, if we can only keep it clean.”
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