Beneath the surface: Facilities update from the Provost

A contruction project underway at Yale University.
Construction underway on Science Hill. (Photo credit: Fly on the Wall Productions)

Each year, I try to give an update on building projects around the university, explaining some of the cranes, tarpaulins, and backhoes that we encounter in our travels around campus. This year, the cranes are somewhat less in evidence, partly because a few major projects (notably the two new colleges) are now complete. But another reason for the change is that there is a lot of activity happening underground, invisible to passersby.

Students in Yale College have long known that many of the university’s most intriguing resources are concealed below street level. Think of the printing press in Jonathan Edwards College or the pottery studio in Trumbull. In the residential colleges there are theaters, dance rooms, butteries, fitness rooms, music practice rooms, and basketball courts — all below ground.

Those of us who aren’t undergraduates could be forgiven for overlooking how much life teems beneath the surface of our campus. But all of us have reason to look more closely at the subterranean elements of some of our current facilities projects.

We will soon begin work to transform the Hall of Graduate Studies (HGS), 320 York Street, into a hub of humanities scholarship and activity. This exemplar of James Gamble Rogers’s collegiate gothic architecture first opened its doors in 1932. When those doors reopen in the fall of 2020, the building will welcome 10 departments and programs formerly housed in other locations in addition to the six departments and programs currently in HGS. There will be shared meeting rooms and study spaces, a large common room with a coffee shop, lounges for students and faculty, dedicated space for graduate students to study, work, and meet, and more than two dozen classrooms — all stretching to the peak of the iconic tower that now bears David Swensen’s name.

And that is just above ground. Underpinning it all will be a lower level that contains a 280-seat lecture hall and a 96-seat film screening room. These venues will host iconic courses in the humanities that reach generations of undergraduates, as well as public programming including Films at the Whitney, the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, and the many interdisciplinary events supported by the Whitney Humanities Center, the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, and the new 320 York programming endowment.

Floor plan for the basement level of the Hall of Graduate Studies at Yale.
Plans for the lower level of the new Hall of Graduate Studies includes a lecture hall and film screening room. (Credit: Ann Beha Architects)

Another underground gathering space will come online when the Schwarzman Center opens, also in 2020. Most of us have walked past and through the historic Commons and Memorial Hall — designed by the architects Carrère and Hastings, and opened in 1901-1902 to commemorate the university’s bicentennial — countless times in our lives at Yale. But I for one did not know until recently that below the first floor of Commons is a vast, catacomb-like former coal power facility. In the building’s early decades, coal would come down a chute from Grove Street, and workers would load it into a cart that ran on rails to a furnace down the hall. The tracks are still there, although the Commons furnace was replaced by power from a central plant in the late 1920s, when a network of underground steam tunnels was constructed. Beginning in 2020, this largely unseen space will be accessible to us all, with a stage and a green room, a gallery and exhibition space, a rehearsal studio and an art room, offices and meeting spaces, a bistro and, tucked into the lower level of the rotunda, a bar to stop in for a drink, perhaps after watching a theater performance or screening.

Renovations at 320 York and the Schwarzman Center are following a similar time table: Both will start this summer. Meanwhile, on Science Hill, a major project with its own subterranean charms is already well under way.

It is amazing to think that a little over a year ago we were just breaking ground for the Yale Science Building’s construction. This new space for science at Yale has been 25 years in the making, and now it is emerging, rising out of the ground for all to see. A “topping off” ceremony in late January included a chance for members of the campus community to sign their names on the final steel beam that completed the very top of the building. Far below, one of the most exciting aspects of this project is invisible to the casual observer. Beneath the ground, in space carved out of the bedrock, remarkable new scholarship will transform our understanding of the world. Directly under the plaza next to Kline Biology Tower (the iron-spot brick and sandstone monolith designed by Philip Johnson in the 1960s) will soon be a state-of-the-art space for advancing Yale’s research. This lower level will house the full spectrum of science scale, from atomic physics to molecular microscopy to the study of whole organisms in an insectary. It will also be home to the new O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall, named after the 19th-century Yale paleontologist, whose lobby will be graced by a Triceratops skull from the Peabody Museum’s collection. The lecture hall will be one of Yale’s largest, and will serve the Peabody, Science Hill, and all of campus.

Construction underway at Yale.
(Photo credit: Joseph Wolenski)

Of course, this is not the only place where building work is in evidence. Scaffolding and omnipresent construction vehicles along the Wall Street side of Sterling Memorial Library signal the renovation of the manuscripts and archives facility. On Elm Street and on Grove Street, new housing complexes — with, between them, 192 beds for graduate and professional students — are nearing completion in time to welcome residents this fall. On Becton Plaza, we will break ground this summer to build Tsai CITY, already a thriving programmatic presence on campus, which will move into its permanent home in 2020. Here, too, there is a new underground space: the Linda and Glenn H. Greenberg Engineering Teaching Concourse, with six state-of-the-art teaching labs that opened last fall directly beneath the plaza.

Yale has a history of great buildings, from the 266-year-old Connecticut Hall to the less-than-one-year-old Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges. We celebrate the parts that rise above the surface, but some of our greatest treasures are hidden underground.

Ben Polak
Provost
William C. Brainard Professor of Economics

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