The heart of the university as you’ve never seen it before.
Mark Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Sterling Memorial Library has always been one of the main attractions on anyone’s Yale tour. In my student days, I liked to lower expectations by taking people underground first, into the bowels of the grim, colorless Cross Campus Library—then up a staircase into the midst of a cathedral: the entrance hall of Sterling, with its soaring arches, rows of card catalogs standing in for worshippers, and a devotional portrait of Alma Mater overlooking it all. It never failed to impress.
And I never imagined it could look much better. But in September, the entrance hall—which, extending the ecclesiastical metaphor, is known as the nave—reopened after an 18-month restoration, and it is more stunning than ever. 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.”
Funded by a $20 million gift from Richard Gilder ’54 and Lois Chiles as a tribute to former president Richard Levin ’74PhD and Jane Levin, the project is a fine restoration of some exquisite architecture and craftsmanship. But it’s also a reorganization, meant to better accommodate the way we use libraries today. The space beneath that portrait of Alma Mater, once a staff-only area behind the circulation desk, is now the entrance to the library stacks and an area for patrons to scan books and to check them out using self-checkout stations. The north aisle now houses a desk for information, circulation, and privileges, with desks where patrons can meet with librarians. And the south aisle—stripped of all card catalogs except those built into the wall—has been furnished with soft chairs reminiscent of those in the nearby Linonia and Brothers Reading Room.
The comfy chairs were part of a plan. “We wanted people to come back to Sterling,” says associate librarian Kendall Crilly ’86MusM, ’92MA. “Undergraduates told the architects that there was no obvious place to meet at Sterling. There wasn’t a sense that this is a place you go.” That changed quickly when the nave reopened, Crilly says. “We took down the curtain that set off the south aisle, and within minutes students had pulled out their laptops and claimed a chair.”
Some of the changes are less visible. On a recent visit, members of the team from restoration firm Helpern Architects pointed with pride to what people won’t notice: the subtly placed return-air ducts that allow air conditioning in the space, and the hidden light fixtures that highlight architectural features.
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. The central stairway was removed seven years ago, when CCL was transformed into the Bass Library, and now, every stick of furniture has been removed. That emptiness is by design—to showcase an architectural gem that sees as many as 17,000 visitors a month, many of them in tour groups. “One of the shared visions from the beginning,” says architect David Helpern, “was not to put anything in that space. That space was sacred.”