A Sterling Restoration

Volume 48, Issue 2 :: Michael J. Crosbie / Photos © Brian Rose

The ‘nave’ of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library takes the notion of ‘sacred-secular’ architecture to its extreme, conceived by its architect as a ‘cathedral of learning.’

The ‘nave’ of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library takes the notion of ‘sacred-secular’ architecture to its extreme, conceived by its architect as a ‘cathedral of learning.’

The term “sacred-secular” refers to environments that convey a sense of spirituality for purposes that are otherwise not connected to an organized religion or recognized faith tradition. For example, over the past half-century modern art museums have often been hailed as the sacred-secular buildings of our time. Architects often describe these ascetic settings as designed to sanctify modern art in late-20th century culture: objects of transcendence, reflection, questioning. The architectural language of modern museums has been compared to that of contemporary religious buildings, which often rely on the subtle manipulation of light and space to create a place removed from the cacophony of profane commercialism just outside the confines of the gallery or the worship space.

It could be argued that in the 19th century it was the library that was the preeminent sacred-secular building of its time. This was a product of the Enlightenment, the expansion of scientific knowledge, and the veneration of the book as the sacred object that could offer salvation from the ignorance of mankind. In her recent history of university chapels, White Elephants on Campus, historian Margaret Grubiack argues that as the influence of organized religion on society in general and on universities in particular waned as the 20th century dawned, some institutions of higher learning transferred the status of the college chapel to other academic buildings, most prominently libraries. One such institution was Yale University.

At a moment in history when you might have thought the library itself was no longer relevant in a digital, virtual world, Yale has invested in its past to burnish with new luster one of the most sacred-secular spaces in North America: the nave of Sterling Memorial Library. An example of the Collegiate Gothic style in the U.S. (which first appeared in buildings at Kenyon and Knox colleges in the early 19th century), Sterling is without peer. Designed by James Gamble Rogers in the late 1920s, it revels in what had been proper academic architectural regalia for relatively young, New World institutions (for instance Yale, Chicago, Penn, Fordham) yearning for the trappings of collegiate pedigree found at such Old World places as Oxford and Cambridge.

Rogers draped the neo-Gothic mantle on several buildings throughout the Yale campus, but Sterling is perhaps his greatest achievement in this style. According to Grubiak, Sterling Memorial Library was somewhat of a stand-in for the university chapel that Rogers really wanted to build, but time and style were not on his side. Yale ended compulsory chapel attendance for students in 1926 and without it the need for a large, central religious building on campus evaporated. The architect instead conceived the entry hall of the library as a “cathedral of learning” and carried that metaphor quite far.

One enters a 150-foot-long, 45-foot-high “nave” on axis with the circulation desk as the “high altar” at the far end, crowned with a “reredos” mural by Eugene Francis Savage of “Alma Mater,” which personifies Yale as a Marian figure. This “chancel” is partially separated from the nave by a “rood screen” of wood, behind which one finds staff areas. In the “side aisle” to the left of the nave is the card catalogue; to the right are more staff accouterments. Above the nave one finds leaded, stained-glass windows created by G. Owen Bonawit depicting the history of Yale and the City of New Haven, Connecticut. Throughout there are carvings of academic saints, patrons, and figures related to the library, its history, and the greater world of books and knowledge. It is a veritable temple to words, if not The Word.

When the library was dedicated in April 1931, then-university president James Rowland Angell praised the architect and his collaborators, who had “conjured up a dream of surpassing majesty and then translated it into innumerable ingenious and gracious forms. Here is incarnate the intellectual and spiritual life of Yale.” Some were inspired; others found the religious imagery over the top, to the point of sacrilege, hubris, or just wishful thinking. But it is hard to visit here and not feel that you are in a place of reverence for the enterprise of learning. Borrowing an architectural language from the history of religious buildings makes that connection viscerally.

The stained glass in the 25-foot-high windows by G. Owen Bonawit is actually a pale yellow. The unsigned stone frieze depicts the library’s history. This view into the reconceived and now carpeted and furnished south aisle shows the built-in wall of card catalogues.

The stained glass in the 25-foot-high windows by G. Owen Bonawit is actually a pale yellow. The unsigned stone frieze depicts the library’s history. This view into the reconceived and now carpeted and furnished south aisle shows the built-in wall of card catalogues.

Some 80 years after its “consecration” as a sanctuary of knowledge, Sterling was looking a little worse for wear. The limestone and sandstone interior had grown dark, mottled, and moisture-stained; lighting was gloomy; card catalogue cabinets bulged in the side aisle; the infrastructure for a functioning, contemporary library needed serious upgrading. According to architect David Helpern, FAIA, of Helpern Architects in New York, which led the restoration/renovation efforts, “Yale mandated us to restore the nave to its original splendor, accommodate and anticipate continuing rapid changes in library use, and make the old and new indistinguishable.” The hardest part of such a charge, of course, is to make sure that what you do remains to a large extent invisible, or at least as if it had always been there. Helpern and the myriad consultants who worked on Sterling achieved a remarkable result with a deft touch, without leaving fingerprints.

One of the greatest challenges was to accommodate new technology within the nave’s original fabric in ways undetectable. This was particularly tricky because the 13,000-square-foot nave is essentially an independent building from the rest of the library, which covers some 442,000 square feet in total. The nave’s structure is load-bearing, stone-on-stone construction without steel, which leaves precious little space within its walls and columns for threading cables, pipes, wires, ducts, and other modern improvements. Unoccupied space above the gabled ceiling and below the Mankato-Kasota stone floor helped achieve a seamless upgrade to heating and cooling equipment and in particular new LED lighting, which now reveals the coffered oak ceiling’s gilding, stenciling, and carved bosses in ways never seen before. Secreted within the narrow balconies on either side of the nave are new light fixtures, HVAC ducts, cables, and fin-tube radiators whose convection currents wash the single-pane leaded glass windows above them to mitigate condensation.

Nave Floor Plan

Nave Floor Plan

 

A vivid makeover is the old card catalogue space, which before the renovation was crammed with cabinets holding cards for the library’s collection. The catalogue itself is now digital, accessed through a bank of computer monitors at one end of this space. With the cabinets gone (except for a long row retained and refinished, with empty drawers, as a remembrance of what once was there) the space is now repurposed as a comfortable lounge with easy chairs and library tables, now a popular reading spot. Where cabinets had extended from the piers, Helpern created new wooden panels replicating original carved details, which now enclose closets that house new air-handling units (sound insulation dampens equipment noise). Similarly inventive design is found at the “high altar” of the former circulation desk. It had stretched from column to column, but has been shortened on each end to allow access to the stacks beyond and a self-service area (it looks as if it had always been like this). Other recycled and recreated woodwork was used to create new staff desks along the north side-aisle. Here and there one finds new ventilation grilles and hardware whose design is modeled on the nave’s existing ironwork by the legendary metal artisan Samuel Yellin. Meanwhile, old telephone booths now conceal the fire alarm command center.

Most dramatic is the thoroughly cleaned Indiana limestone and Ohio sandstone throughout, missing and damaged pieces of which have been replaced flawlessly. New lighting carefully concealed at the tops of stone columns and in little nooks and crannies throughout the nave lift James Gamble Rogers’ rib vaults, carved bosses, and polychrome webbing into a heavenly fugue. This revelatory illumination makes it seem as if this space is breathing, expanding its stone lungs with the oxygen of millions of words, its capillaries carrying accumulated wisdom to a new generation of students, who just might notice, if they raise their eyes from the sacramental radiance of their hand-held screens.

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