The old new Nave at Yale

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The Nave of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, at New Haven. (New York Times)

The Nave, as the entrance hall of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale has long been known, was meticulously restored by Helpern Architects in 2014, revealing forgotten glories in the stonework by the original architect, James Gamble Rogers. I visited in 2010 on a tour led by Michael Tyrrell, then on the board of the New England chapter of the Insitute of Classical Architecture & Art. Although covered with the grime and soot of the ages, it blew me away then, and today I got an email from Joan Capelin, a New York City publicist of unusual persistence, reminding me of the restoration, chiding me gently for ignoring it, and assuring me I’d be even more impressed today.

The picture above proves it. An even more spectacular photographic experience is available online in the Yale Alumni Magazine: “Sterling restored: The heart of the university as you’ve never seen it before,” by Mark Alden Branch. Here’s how he describes the Nave’s restoration:

The cleaning and repair of the stone, windows, and woodwork revealed patterns and textures that had been obscured for decades. “I think we’re all surprised by how thick the grime was and what was underneath it,” says University Librarian Susan Gibbons, “the gold leaf, the difference in the colors of the stone.”

That effort was assisted by Helpern’s cagey ability to disguise utilitarian features such as lights directed at ornamental details and air-conditioning ducts within the nooks and crannies of detailed embellishment. As the New York Times put it: “Unlike the steel-framed tower for the book stacks, Mr. Helpern said, the walls of the nave are pure masonry — stone on stone — with few hollow spaces through which to thread new ductwork and equipment.” Branch adds:

But for those of us who remember a nave crowded with display cases, desks, and card catalogs, the most striking change may be the emptiness of that vast main hall. … “One of the shared visions from the beginning,” says architect David Helpern, “was not to put anything in that space. That space was sacred.”

In the Dec. 26, 2014, article referred to above, Timesman David Dunlop described the Nave’s restoration in “A Piece of Yale’s Library Is Brought Back to Life.” Dunlop may be the Times’s most interesting and erudite writer on architecture nowadays. Here is how he opened his article:

“Few works can equal it as a monument of lifelessness and decadence; none can surpass it in extravagance and falsity.”

Writing in an undergraduate review called The Harkness Hoot in 1930, William Harlan Hale had nothing good to say about the new Sterling Memorial Library, “built at a cost of about $7 million by Yale University, and safely constructed — alas! — for the ages.”

Why, he wondered, did Yale insist on a “Girder Gothic” faux cathedral while great minds elsewhere were fashioning a new age of minimalist, transparent, unsentimental architecture? Time has answered his question.

Dunlop continues:

Rather than being reviled as movie-set medieval and too overtly Christian in design, Sterling Memorial Library is now such an important symbol of the university that in 2011 Yale was given $20 million by Richard Gilder, a New York money manager, philanthropist and alumnus from the class of 1954, to restore, clean, modernize and reimagine the entrance hall, known as the nave.

Excuse me while I chortle into my sleeve at the discomfiture these lines must cause among the mossback modernist establishment architectural faculty at Yale! (I hasten to add that they are better than at most architecture schools.) But they need not be too concerned. As Dunlop notes, despite its nickname, students do not consider the Sterling to be a religious facility.

Nevertheless, the restoration of the beauty of the Nave no doubt lifts the spirits of the library’s visitors, and especially its students, consciously or not. Studies confirm this effect, but Yale administrators might want to focus – as I’ve been arguing for years – on the $20 million donated by financier Richard Gilder ’54. Can anyone imagine him donating money to build a “minimalist, transparent, unsentimental” library? It’s not that Yale has none of those, financed by nudniks, but maybe they are one the wane!

Gilder, who has managed to live up to his name, reminds me of Jonathan Nelson, the Providence financier who refused to help Brown University finance a modernist fitness center, as originally planned. Build that if you want, he told Brown President Ruth Simmons, but get someone else to pay for it. Simmons resisted but eventually backed down and hired RAMSA, the firm founded by the famed classicist Robert A.M. Stern. The result was a facility that Brown can be proud of, which strengthens rather than weakens its brand.

Imagine that!

Stern, who was Yale’s dean of architecture for 18 years until 2016, was hired by the university to design two new residential campuses, now nearing completion, in the Collegiate Gothic style made famous by James Gamble Rogers between 1910 and 1930. Brown and Yale leadership predictably fail to understand the good that traditional projects do for a university, or they’d never build another collegiate modern glass box or goofbucket again. But, hey! They are college administrators. ‘Nuff said!

Yet students who spend four memorable years at school need architecture that is memorable, architecture they can love, so as to imprint the experience on their young minds. You’d think university development kingpins would be interested in how to influence the future bequestability of today’s students. Well, here’s how! It is not rocket science. It’s been around for centuries. And almost all people still consider it beautiful. In fact, it sometimes seems as if an advanced degree is required to think otherwise.

The Nave is yet another example of truth hiding right out in plain sight.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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