Divinity School honored for 20-year effort to restore Sterling Quadrangle

A view of the Yale Divinity School campus in autumn
A view of the Yale Divinity School campus in autumn (Photo credit: Philipp Arndt)

The New Haven Preservation Trust (NHPT) has awarded the Yale Divinity School (YDS) a landmark plaque in recognition of its more than 20-year effort to preserve and restore Sterling Quadrangle — the Georgian-style complex at the crest of Prospect Hill that has been the school’s home since 1932.

We are deeply gratified to receive this honor from a local entity for our efforts to restore our buildings,” said Gregory Sterling, the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at YDS. “This is wonderful for the entire university and for our school’s community because it both recognizes the beauty of the quad — and it is a beautiful place — and our appreciation and cultivation of that architectural beauty.”

Designed by the firm of Delano & Aldrich and inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia, the quadrangle is composed of two rows of red brick pavilions that run parallel to each other separated by a lawn. Marquand Chapel stands at the head of the quadrangle. The school’s primary public spaces — including the Old Refectory and Old Common Room — were located behind the chapel at the complex’s back or eastern end, where the hilltop site begins its downward slope.

[T]he front section of Sterling Quadrangle has both the picturesqueness of a New England village and the tough, blunt certainty of Jefferson’s campus,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in a 1996 piece in The New York Times about a proposed renovation. “This is a place of romantic yearning but of realism too, an architecture that brilliantly manages to combine innocence with rigor.”

The NHPT’s landmark designation recognizes “exemplary acts of leadership in historic preservation” regarding “buildings or sites of outstanding and enduring architectural and historical significance.” Rudolph Hall — home of the Yale School of Architecture — and Mores and Stiles Colleges are other Yale buildings that have received NHPT’s landmark plaques.

The honor is particularly meaningful given the complicated history of the quad’s restoration, Sterling noted.

Dean Gregory Sterling stands with Elizabeth Holt of the New Haven Preservation Trust.
Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling stands with Elizabeth Holt, director of preservation services for the New Haven Preservation Trust.

The complex was falling into disrepair in the 1990s and the university seriously considered tearing it down and relocating YDS to a smaller building closer to the main campus in downtown New Haven — a plan that encountered passionate resistance from the quadrangle’s admirers. In 1996, the university changed course and decided to restore the quadrangle, albeit through a plan that included demolishing the four buildings located at the complex’s eastern end, which is its back end.

The proposed demolition was highly controversial. Renowned art historian and longtime faculty member Vincent Scully ’40 B.A., ’47 M.A., ’49 Ph.D. publicly criticized the plan during a symposium on campus.

If the Divinity School were rebuilt according to the present plan, I’d have to rethink my future in this institution,” Scully said. “Loyalty can only be stretched so far.”

In his New York Times piece, Goldberger panned the renovation plan for both misinterpreting Delano & Aldrich’s vision and misunderstanding “the nature of great architecture in general” because it mistakenly assumed that “what matters in architecture is only the front.”

Goldberger noted that the “sumptuous Georgian brick buildings” of the quadrangle’s “spatially intricate” back portion were instrumental in distinguishing it from Jefferson’s university campus, which “had no real back” and opens up to a view of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

In response to the criticism and public outcry, the university revised the renovation plan, sparing the complex’s back third from the wrecking ball.

Once the controversy ended, the renovation got underway. Over the following decade, the quadrangle’s exterior was restored and Marquand Chapel was renovated. A 2007 project transformed the complex’s old gymnasium into classrooms, faculty offices, and a facility for the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. The final portion of the restoration was completed in late 2017 with the renovation of the Old Refectory and Old Common Room, which today function as an event space. New landscaping, expected to be completed in July, will provide a finishing touch.

In its award citation, the NHPT referenced Scully’s passionate advocacy for restoring the entire quadrangle: “Ever since his call to rethinking the issue, YDS has been and continues to be committed to the challenge of preservation and in so doing provides an ever more perfect fit for the school’s expanding and all-embracing curriculum and its encouragement of stewardship.” 

The quadrangle’s architecture is vital to YDS, contributing to its culture in several ways, Sterling explained.

The quad is a very human place,” he said. “The buildings are relatively small in scale, and they promote togetherness and a sense of humanity. They also have an aesthetic, which is important because as a divinity school, we believe that aesthetics are a reflection of the divine. We greatly appreciate the quad’s beauty.”

The fully restored quadrangle also symbolizes YDS’s commitment to excellence, Sterling said.

It signals to everyone who comes in through the door that we stand for excellence,” he said. “We stand for excellence in our faculty, in our staff, and in our students. Our buildings reflect that.”

Share this with Facebook Share this with Twitter Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548