Few university art museums have holdings that span from 3000-year old Chinese bronze vessels to bronze coins of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and from the blue-tiled gates of ancient Babylon to Blam, a red, white, and blue oil painting by Roy Lichtenstein. The collections of the Yale University Art Gallery, both deep and wide-ranging, offer up an impressive art-fueled time machine, and thanks to the Gallery’s current expansion project by Ennead, visitors will be able to travel more easily than ever across history and cultures.
The updated Gallery, three buildings that Ennead has carefully stitched together as one, is itself a kind of timeline that reflects Yale’s architectural history: Street Hall from 1866, described by its architect Peter B. Wight (channeling John Ruskin) as “Veronese Gothic,” was most recently home to the art history department; over 50 years later Egerton Swartwout created an enclosed bridge that linked Street Hall to his 1928 neo-Gothic museum (the “Old” Yale Art Gallery), built just across the road; and next door in 1953 Louis Kahn completed one of his first major commissions, a five-story museum building with striking ceilings of concrete tetrahedron coffers, whose first floor now serves as the expanded museum’s main entrance.
Though the youngest of the three, Kahn’s building was the first up for renovation, a job Ennead (then Polshek) took on in 2006. At a recent press preview of the Gallery, Ennead partner Duncan Hazard diplomatically commented that “Kahn was figuring it out as he went along.” (Over time sweating steel walls necessitated interior gutters, which, needless to say, didn’t help achieve a constant 70 degree/50 percent humidity standard museum climate.)
In the recent renovations of Swartwout and Street, Ennead took care to use storm windows to help with climate control, but these panes are recessed in the thick stone walls, which aids in maintaining the original look of the windows from the exterior. Inside, warrens of makeshift offices were removed to restore the buildings’ generous rooms, and a surprisingly spectacular glass elevator was installed to connect the floors above with an extensive new education center at the basement level.
At the top of Swartwout, Ennead added a floor and a half, which will provide space for temporary exhibitions and a dedicated study gallery, where every semester professors can request art to be displayed for use in their courses. The new addition is pulled back from the original facade to create a terrace with panoramic views of New Haven and is the new home of several large-scale sculptures, including a Henry Moore.
The expanded Gallery, which will open in December and tally almost 65,000 square feet, is free and open to the public, but its primary audience is students, and with the new space Yale hopes to instill an appreciation for art that will last a lifetime. If Yale generates even more art aficionados, a further expansion may be on the distant horizon: donors, many of them alumni, have given the museum 15,000 new works of art just since the renovation project began.