Yale University Art Gallery

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View of ancient art sculpture hall, Yale University Art Gallery.
Elizabeth Felicella

Rare indeed is the renovation of three adjacent buildings—from different periods and in different styles—that emphasizes their differences. Ennead Architects’ rehabilitation of the Yale University Art Gallery, however, allows each component to shine and, in the process, to house different parts of the University’s wide-ranging collection in spaces particularly appropriate for the works of art they contain.

Although their integrity has been preserved, the three buildings on Chapel Street, which reopened on December 12, have been knit together intriguingly with various staircases and an enormous glass-walled elevator that connects floors on the different levels of the Old Yale Art Gallery, now called Swartwout, and Street Hall both physically and visually. The renovation also added new gallery space above Swartwout with an outdoor terrace overlooking New Haven that houses big bronze figurative sculptures by Henry Moore and other modern masters.

The $135 million renovation, which added 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, took place  over a nine-year period, beginning in 2003 with the newest of the three buildings—Louis I. Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery of 1951-53. That part of the project, completed in 2006, began when Ennead was still called the Polshek Partnership and the University was still flush with funds. Amazingly, it managed to raise money during the recession to complete this badly needed expansion to display even a smattering of the University’s over 200,000 objects.

View of American paintings and sculpture galleries (left) and the European art galleries (right).

The second phase had to await the opening of Gwathmey Siegel’s new quarters for the history of art department, adjacent to the restored Rudolph Building across York Street. Then, Ennead Architects, led by design partner Richard Olcott and managing partner Duncan Hazard, tackled the 1928 Italian Trecento Old Yale Art Gallery and Street Hall, which is separated from it on the ground level by High Street but connected by the curious aerial bridge. Street Hall, a Victorian Gothic structure of 1866 by Peter B. Wight, had housed the art history department and, at one time, art studios as well. The old  Yale Art Gallery building was renamed after its architect, Egarton Swartwout, of Tracy & Swartwout.

The Yale Art Gallery was the first college art museum in the nation and the third in the world. It was founded (at another location which is soon outgrew) in 1832 by the American history painter Colonel John Trumbull. Bizarrely, he was buried in his gallery with his wife Sarah. Their remains are now in Street Hall under an engraved stone slab like those in European cathedrals. Trumbull’s paintings of scenes from and participants in the American Revolution here are invaluable historic records as well as intriguing works of art. Street Hall now also houses American decorative arts and the interiors of two historic New England houses. American painting and sculpture is shown upstairs in exquisitely colored skylight galleries that provide just enough of the flavor of the spaces where they might have originally been displayed.

The beautiful restored stone walls of Swartwout accommodate ancient sculpture and other objects, such as a mosaic floor from Dura Europos, which may be the world’s largest, most valuable jigsaw puzzle. On the second floor, Medieval and Renaissance paintings shine against deep purple walls. The newly created upper floors house art and design from the 20th and 21st centuries and space for special exhibitions.

View of modern and contemporary art galleries.
Elizabeth Felicella

Other temporary shows and the collections (including most non-Western art) are displayed in Louis Kahn’s Yale Art gallery, which was built as an addition to Swartwout. Initially it contained architecture and design studios as well as galleries. James Stewart Polshek himself had studied on the fourth floor as had Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Dean Robert A. M. Stern and other luminaries. While Duncan Hazard, another Yale grad, and his Polshek colleagues were restoring the famous movable “pogo” panels and the repairing the exposed concrete block walls, they carefully preserved the graffitied concrete drum that surrounds the triangular staircase in the area where the architects once worked. The sketches they made and phone numbers they wrote on it are now a curious part of the Gallery’s collection.

Other parts of the first phase of the renovation were a little trickier. The outdated exposed ductwork was trapped because it had been inserted above the tetrahedral ceiling before the floor slabs above it were poured. The innovative lighting tracks, originally in every other bay, were replaced and extended to every bay. The beautifully proportioned early curtain wall facing the courtyard was replaced with a new one that is double glazed and thermally broken to prevent the condensation that had caused the original to corrode.

What visitors will notice first, however, is a spacious new reception area, made possible by a big new elevator that allows temporary exhibitions to be held on upper floors instead of by the entrance. That space, which was elegantly redesigned by Yale faculty member Joel Sanders, is merely the first of a series of new architectural adventures that await visitors to this magnificent university museum.

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