Last autumn as Yale University students returned to campus in New Haven Conn., the Schwarz- man Center opened its doors. The timing couldn’t have been better: This new student center created a social hub for an expansive community of undergraduate, graduate and professional students, as well as faculty, staff and alumni, many of whom were reuniting in person for the first time in more than a year. The project is the result of Robert A.M. Stern Architects’ (RAMSA’s) remarkable transformation of the north wing of the Bicentennial Buildings, an L-shaped structure comprised of the adjoining Commons (along Grove Street), Woosley Hall (along College Street) and Memorial Hall (connecting the two buildings at the corner). As the name suggests, the buildings were built in 1901, honoring the 200th anniversary of Yale’s founding, but the buildings did far more than just celebrate a moment.
“Historically, this is a very significant location,” says RAMSA Partner and Design Lead Melissa DelVecchio. “Not only are the Bicentennial Buildings at the geographic heart of Yale’s campus, but they have always been symbolic of a unified academic community. They were the first new facilities built after Yale College merged with the Sheffield Scientific School, helping to bring together different groups of students—and our renovation advances that original purpose even more.”
The subtle and inventive rehabilitation by RAMSA preserves the historic character of the Bicentennial Buildings, revitalizes underused areas and introduces sensitively designed new spaces (underground and within an annex), ensuring that the new Schwarzman Center will continue to serve the Yale community through its next centennial.
Magic in the Details
For generations, the historic rooms in the Bicentennial Buildings played important roles during commencement exercises and class reunions, making them a beloved part of the Yale experience. Of the many components that collectively comprise the Schwarzman Center project, perhaps the restoration of the ornate dining hall known as the Commons is the crowning achievement. RAMSA returned this timber-trussed refectory with 66-foot-tall ceilings, which was in urgent need of repair, including complete replacement of its floor structure, to its former grandeur while bringing it into the 21st century. But one needs to look closely to fully appreciate the team’s work; the magic is in the details.
Designers paid special attention to ensure that modern interventions would largely go unseen and to carefully preserve historic elements—in essence creating a time-tested yet well-maintained appearance. “We restored spaces with the lightest touch possible to retain their historic patina and character,” DelVecchio says. Gentle cleaning of walls and ornamentation removed a century of soot, and similar treatment of the ceiling trusses revealed long-forgotten decorative paintings. Thoughtfully integrated lighting and audiovisual equipment make it possible for the first time to convert the dining hall into a state-of-the-art, broadcast-ready concert venue. But the biggest (and perhaps most welcome change) to the Commons is invisible: the addition of heating and air-conditioning systems.
Integrating modern HVAC systems into the more than 100-year-old building without disrupting architectural character was no easy feat. RAMSA carefully removed, restored, reconfigured (to add hidden access points), and reinstalled original millwork to conceal new HVAC equipment, which was installed by carving ductwork paths into the 30-inch masonry bearing walls while the wood panels were in the shop.
The Commons was also optimized for performance. Acoustic panels, made of a micro-perforated wood that looked nearly identical to the original ceiling, were installed between purlins. A new theatrical catwalk, intended for the installation of performance lighting and other theatrical rigs, is camouflaged among the ceiling trusses. Historic light fixtures were updated with LED lamps; additional light sources were added to accentuate architectural details; and the original chandeliers were retrofitted with the ability to be raised and lowered accordingly.
And the floor structure in need of complete replacement? The RAMSA team turned this obstacle into an opportunity to recuperate valuable square footage underground.
Giving Old Spaces New Life
Imaginative design thinking and strategic phasing makes the Schwarzman Center a great example of contemporary building rehabilitation. While the floor of the Commons was removed, the basement level below it was dug 30-inches deeper—a delicate and complex affair. “Every time a wall was opened or a floor was removed, a new challenge emerged,” DelVecchio points out. But the excavation effort was worth helping Yale make full use of the building; RAMSA was able to reuse the basement level for new food service and performances.
PHOTOS: FRANCIS DZIKOWSKI/OTTO unless otherwise noted
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