Renewing an architectural ‘temple of the mind’ — for a new generation

Photos: Renovating the nave at Sterling Library

Here is a view of the front entrance of Sterling Memorial Library in 1931, the year the building opened.
And here is a current view of the library's front entrance.
When visitors come through the High Street entrance, they enter the nave, facing the circulation desk and a painting of Alma Mater surrounded by allegorical figures representing her academic schools.
This view of the nave towards the High Street entrance shows glass artist Owen Bonawit's clerestory windows, which will be restored as part of the renovation.
Bonawits’ six stained glass saints are rendered in Art Deco style. Three of them are named Honesty, Imagination, and Courage
This area will become a soft-seating area. The card catalog cabinets that are flush to the walls will remain to provide textured boundaries to a conversation area with sofas and chairs.
As shown in this floor plan, the restored nave will provide a direct path from the High Street entrance through the current circulation desk and to the library collections. (Drawing courtesy of Helpern Architects)
This sketch shows the circulation desk post-renovation. (Drawing courtesy of Helpern Architects)
The reconfiguration of the south aisle, which currently contains the empty card catalog drawers, will create seating and tables for study and conversation. (Drawing courtesy of Helpern Architects)
The north aisle of the nave, facing to the Selin Courtyard, will become the new home for library services, including circulation, information, and privileges. (Drawing courtesy of Helpern Architects)
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Beginning this summer, the grand nave of Sterling Memorial Library — a destination for thousands of students, scholars, and campus visitors each year — will be renewed and restored, thanks to a $20 million gift from Richard Gilder ’54 and his wife, Lois Chiles.

The restoration honors outgoing Yale University President Richard C. Levin and his wife, Jane A. Levin, lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for the Directed Studies Program.

Gilder, founder of the brokerage firm now known as Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co. LLC, has for many years worked closely with the Levins to advance the University’s mission.

“I have the deepest respect and appreciation for the way Rick has steered his beloved alma mater through many difficult times,” Gilder said. “Today, Yale is firmly on the path to continued excellence, thanks to Rick’s consistent vision and leadership.”

Designed by Helpern Architects, the restoration will encompass the full interior of the nave, including the card catalog areas to the south, the north space adjacent to the Selin Courtyard, and the area behind the circulation desk.

A major component of the project will be a complete restoration of the nave’s stained glass windows, which are among the approximately 3,300 windows that artist G. Owen Bonawit designed for placement throughout the library.

In addition, the nave’s multi-toned stone, woodwork, painted motifs, and the painting of the Alma Mater will be cleaned, repaired, and illuminated by modern lighting.

The entrance to the stacks will be reconfigured to enhance access to the library’s 4 million volumes. Installation of new heating and air-conditioning will create a more comfortable and energy-efficient space. 

As of June 3, library patrons who use the High Street entrance to Sterling Memorial Library will enter a covered pedestrian walkway spanning the length of the nave, with side tunnels providing access to major reading rooms on the first floor.

Signage will help patrons to navigate the construction in order access the collections and services they need — all of which will continue to be available, although some will be relocated for the period of the restoration. Although the first-floor reading areas, such as Starr and the Linonia and Brothers rooms, will still be open, the noise of construction may prompt users to seek out quieter spots. The library has created a list of recommended study spaces to accommodate patrons during the restoration. Additional details and a timeline of the project, which will be completed in fall 2014, can be found here.

While the library will remain open throughout the restoration, it will not be able to accommodate tour groups until the project is completed.

Speaking at the opening of Sterling Memorial Library in 1931, Yale University President James Angell said he envisioned it as a place where “the casual reader in search of transient intellectual diversion, not less than the serious scholar embarked on explorations far-flung and recondite, may both be well and promptly served.”

According to University Librarian Susan Gibbons, this mission has not changed — only the logistics of serving a 21st-century library user. “We considered how we could make things more intuitive and efficient, connecting people to the expert help but also empowering users to work on their own.” The restored nave will continue to be, as Angell envisioned, “a very temple of the mind” for a new generation, she notes.

The reconfigured nave will be better equipped for self-service. Along the north wall, a new “iDesk” will offer a single service point for information and library privileges, including circulation. There, in small, flexible meeting spaces, users will also be able to consult with specialists and librarians. Behind what is now the main circulation desk, a new self-service hub will feature self-checkout machines, a book-drop station, scanning stations, and direct access to books on hold (a function currently handled by staff). In the south aisle, patrons will have use of 15 public workstations. The card catalog cabinets that are flush to the walls will remain to provide textured boundaries to a conversation area with sofas and chairs. The reconfiguration of the circulation desk will also provide much more direct access to the stack tower. During the course of the restoration, the circulation, privileges, and information desks are being relocated to the Franke Periodical Reading Room, just adjacent to the High Street entrance of the library.

“This wonderful gift will allow us to achieve two goals in one effort,” notes Gibbons. “It will return this Yale landmark to its original beauty while making its services more convenient and intuitive.”

The Yale University Library

One of the world's leading research libraries, the Yale University Library fosters intellectual growth and supports the teaching and research missions of the University and scholarly communities worldwide. Its resources include more than 15 million volumes and information in all media, ranging from ancient papyri to early printed books, and from digital collections to electronic databases