by Vladimir BelogolovskyApr 18, 2022
American architect Robert A.M. Stern's eponymous practice based in Manhattan has restored and renovated the 120-year-old Schwarzman Center at the Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The project, which took over five years to complete, brings together an ambitious new face of the centre which has historically been dedicated to connecting and collaborating students, faculty, and alumni from all of Yale’s schools and colleges.
Sitting at the heart of the Yale campus, the Beaux-Arts style building was originally constructed in 1901 to commemorate the university’s bicentennial. Conceived by American architecture firm Carrère and Hastings, the structure underlined the basic need to unify the disconnected academic community of the Old Campus colleges and the Sheffield Scientific School. It included the grand Commons Dining Hall as a space for students to dine and socialise; a domed colonnaded Memorial Hall honouring the martyrs of Yale; and the Hewitt Quadrangle as the heart of student organising and activism. Robert A.M. Stern Architects' (RAMSA) focus of intervention has been with Commons, three floors of the adjacent Memorial Hall which includes the President’s Room and the Dome Room, and the design of an outdoor stairway connecting Commons and Meridian Hall to Beinecke Plaza.
Comprising historical preservation and the design of new additions, the approach to the project forged the values of the university and the guiding philosophy of RAMSA. The latter is hinged on its founder’s belief that “architecture can go forward by looking back,” which he shares in an exclusive interview with STIR columnist Vladimir Belogolovsky, adding that "architecture is a representational story telling art". While the original structure was as much "preserved and cleaned of a century’s worth of smoke and grime", according to RAMSA, an entire storey housing an underground moat along the Grove Street was razed to create a three-storey addition to include new programmes.
The highlight of RAMSA’s scheme was the restoration of the 66-feet-high Commons Dining Hall whose former cinder fill terrazzo floor suffered structural constraints, having remained unconducive to bear the weight of the dining hall for a long time. Under its pressing state of architecture, the hall required structural and surface interventions to reinstate it to its former glory. In addition to addressing ensuring structural soundness of the hall, RAMSA also looked at improving the future performance of the building. The project’s team dug up and lowered the hall’s foundation to 30 inches, giving way to a new programming space while performing necessary repairs to the structural damage. A new HVAC system in addition to installing a targeted lighting design program, integrated projection and blackout shades are some other features of the scheme.
RAMSA's focus also converged towards the meticulous architectural elements – symbolic of traditional Yale aesthetic and modern details - that populate the building. In the Commons, the warm wood of the interiors encompassing wall details, historic roof paneling and decorative painting on the wooden trusses were restored. In the President’s Room within the Memorial Hall – the building’s formal dining and reception space - elegant pilasters, removed decades ago, have been reintroduced, and these now flank the restored sconces in the interiors. Inside the Dome, which once served as the Yale Banner yearbook office, this multi-use performance space with an oculus receives refreshed moulding in place of old plasterwork. Other revisions in the Dome include theatrical lighting, a sprung floor, and technological infrastructure for projection design and videography.
The addition of the three new storeys on the Grove Street gives form to the Annex – a popular spot with nooks for students and staff to study and gather for informal discussions. Designed with generous spaces that provide oversized seating and large floor-to-ceiling windows for abundant daylight, the building accommodates the centre’s staff on its mezzanine level, and meeting spaces on the upper floors.
The architectural scheme also furthered the campus’ mission of expanding dining and performance spaces. This intent is realised in the Underground - a casual dining space with a stage for recreational performances, and a bar called Well which is housed within the formal food storage space under the Rotunda of the Memorial Hall.
The preservation efforts and the new additions to the Yale Schwarzman Center, according to Melissa DelVecchio, Partner at RAMSA, "will enrich student life, building new bridges across Yale’s community". She adds, “The flexible and technologically-advanced spaces further Yale’s values – promoting cross-disciplinary collaboration, fostering a sense of belonging, and elevating the importance of wellness.”
This restoration has been made possible by the contribution of former Yale graduate, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who donated over USD 100 million for the building and its support programmes.