Humanities Quadrangle: A cherished Yale icon reimagined

Entrance to the Humanities Quadrangle under construction.
While 320 York St., now called the Humanities Quadrangle, has been dramatically transformed, much care was given to preserve the historical character of the building, which was built in 1932. (All photos by Dan Renzetti)

When he first visited the newly refurbished Humanities Quadrangle (HQ) at 320 York St. — known until recently as the Hall of Graduate Studies — faculty member Kevin van Bladel’s thoughts returned to his days as a Yale graduate student more than two decades ago.

He recalled the camaraderie with fellow students from various fields, their intense intellectual discussions, and the hours upon hours of writing and reading he did within the walls of the iconic building, where he had also lived during his first three years of graduate school.

As van Bladel — now the interim chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) — prepared to move into his new office, he envisioned similar experiences in the new HQ: intense conversations with faculty colleagues and students in the hallways, offices, and meeting rooms; quiet spaces to reflect; and “light-bulb” moments when new ideas take shape.

With the generous support of Yale's alumni and friends, the redesigned and refurbished building puts a vibrant new face on Yale’s longstanding excellence in the humanities. And it does so in the heart of the Yale campus, just across the street from Sterling Memorial Library and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning it houses.

A large room under construction with tools and tables.
Construction continues in the former McDougal Center, which will serve as a common open to all occupants of the HQ.

The Humanities Quadrangle will be transformative,” said Tamar Gendler, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, and professor of psychology and cognitive science. “It will foster new connections across departments and programs; it will enable faculty and students to share knowledge; and it will cultivate new ideas and approaches.”

The building — now home to 15 FAS departments and programs in the humanities as well as offices and meeting and study spaces for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars — opened in late February after 30 months of renovations. While some faculty members, working remotely this semester, have yet to move in, others are already getting acquainted with the building’s brand-new spaces. And there is growing excitement about what will come when it is again fully populated — and the spirit of collaboration the HQ will inspire.

What I really love is that the departments that I and my colleagues often collaborate and share ideas with — language departments, comparative literature, history, religious studies, and others — are now all in close range,” said Dudley Andrew, the R. Selden Rose Professor of Comparative Literature and professor of film studies. “Before we had faculty scattered in numerous buildings, and now everybody in Film & Media Studies is within 50 yards of each other … and we’re close to other humanities departments, as well. It will be easier to get together for meetings between departments and with graduate students and to attend events.”

Added Gendler: “It shows how a physical space can be an intellectual space that actively advances the kind of cross-cutting scholarship that characterizes the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The multi-dimensional space of humanities research is interspersed with spaces of pedagogy and student gathering, from the cozy first-year undergraduate Directed Studies den on the concourse level to the soaring graduate student space in the Swensen Tower.

Through its architecture, the Quadrangle reaffirms Yale’s commitment to humanistic inquiry and conversation.”

A large building with a tower on the end.
The roof was replaced with new slate and the courtyard was re-landscaped. A courtyard-level skylight allows natural light to reach down to a new lower level, which adds an additional 13,000 square feet to the building.

Advancing the ‘social work of knowledge’

The 14-story building, designed in collegiate Gothic style in 1932 by architect James Gamble Rogers, B.A. 1889, has for 80 years been home to a myriad of humanities departments, the offices of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, as well as graduate student housing.

Its transformation, led by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, increased the size of the original building by about 13,000 square feet, all underground. It now includes 311 offices, 28 classrooms, and 24 shared meeting spaces, as well as lounge areas, study spaces, and kitchenettes. Each floor, once divided into dead-end sections, can now be traveled from one end to the next without retracing one’s steps, creating an easier and, for the first time ever, handicap-accessible flow between rooms.

A film screening room.
The building's new lower level features a film screening studio named the Alice Cinema in memory of Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneer of the American and French film industries. An adjacent 190-seat lecture hall is also equipped with film projectors.

The design of the building reflects James Gamble Rogers’ deep historical consciousness of what it takes to create privacy in togetherness,” said Kathryn Lofton, dean of humanities for the FAS and the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies. “There are so many different kinds of spaces for individual study, hallway conferral, public talk, and deliberative discussion. It is a building unusually sensitive to the social work of knowledge.”

As part of the expansion, construction teams added a new lower level, which required digging down 30 feet into the courtyard’s existing foundation and below the existing water table. It was an enormous undertaking. Some 30,000 cubic yards of soil had to be removed and the building shored up. Thirteen deep-water wells were installed to pump out more than 2 million gallons of ground water each week during the process. A crane on Tower Parkway was used to assemble a larger crane, which in turn picked up a third crane that loomed above the building and into the courtyard to assist with the construction of the concrete-and-steel structure below ground, said Bryan D’Orlando, the Yale construction project manager.

The new lower level, parts of which are suffused with natural light from a courtyard-level skylight, houses a lecture hall that seats up to 190 people and an adjacent film-screening studio with a capacity of 90. Both rooms are equipped with two projection booths and high-quality projection equipment, including 35/16 mm and digital cinema projectors to allow for different film-screening experiences. The rooms also feature sound-absorptive paneling, making them acoustically tuned to their respective functions.

Andrew said he is excited for the day when he can show films to his students in the new spaces, especially following this time of pandemic when such gatherings couldn’t take place. The new areas will also be used for film festivals and other events that can also be enjoyed by the community beyond Yale.

Classic elements, modern enhancements

Carved stone column.
Original stonework throughout the building was cleaned.

Issues of sustainability were a foremost consideration in the building’s redesign, according to D’Orlando. The 3,459 windows in the building were all replaced with functioning and better-insulated ones, and 288 original decorative stained-glass windows — crafted by G. Owen Bonawit and many depicting various Graduate School disciplines — were refurbished and repurposed in the new windows. There’s also a new slate roof and entirely upgraded, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.

Solid wood office doors throughout the building were reconfigured to allow for the installation of glass panels that allow more natural light to enter. And new light fixtures — both for uplighting and downlighting — were installed to create brighter hallways and spaces. Much of the yellow-tiled hallway walls was replaced with new wood wainscoting and plaster.

In addition to being more energy efficient, the entire building is much lighter and brighter on account of these renovations,” said D’Orlando.

Wherever possible, original wood floors and wood panels were restored and maintained. Stonework — a key design element on the building’s first floor near the entrance and featuring artisanal figures and other elements — was cleaned. Also spruced up was the historic painted plaster ceiling located in the common room of the former McDougal Center, which was part of the original 1932 building and will continue to serve as a student lounge area.

Wrought Iron gates.
The front entryway, previously an open archway, is now an enclosed, usable space. The original front gates, designed by the late master blacksmith Samuel Yellin, were cleaned and reinstalled.

To whatever extent we could, we repurposed and restored as many historical elements of the building as possible,” said Jim Elmasry, the Yale project planner. “This is a building that holds a lot of memories for students and faculty members at Yale, and we really made a point to preserve the original aesthetics and historic fabric of the building.”

Dramatic changes were made to the building’s York Street loggia, or entryway. The once-open space has been converted to an enclosed, usable space with radiant heating beneath its bluestone flooring. Custom wood infills now surround the historic archways. The front gates, designed by the late master blacksmith Samuel Yellin, whose handiwork adorns much of the campus, were cleaned and reinstalled in a welcoming configuration.

The former dining hall has been converted into three separate spaces — each with their original vaulted ceilings — which now house the Whitney Humanities Center (WHC). (WHC was previously at 53 Wall St.) In addition to the WHC and the Film and Media Studies program, the HQ now houses the undergraduate Humanities Program and its affiliated Directed Studies Program, as well as the Departments of Comparative Literature, French, Germanic Languages and Literatures, Italian Studies, Judaic Studies, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Religious Studies, and Spanish & Portuguese, all departments and programs in the FAS.

Stone archways.
The refurbished building is now brighter, due to the installation of new uplighting and downlighting throughout. Office doors that were once solid wood now have glass inserts that allow the entry of natural light.

The FAS Departments of American Studies, History, East Asian Languages and Literatures, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and Slavic Languages and Literatures return to the building after relocation during construction. Departmental offices are located on the lower five floors of the building.

A hub for student learning

Providing expanded office and quiet study space for graduate students was another central focus of the redesign of the building. The concourse level of the Humanities Quadrangle (formerly the basement level) has been completely refurbished and features office and meeting space for graduate student teaching fellows.

In addition, the sixth through 13th floors, part of the Swensen Tower, is entirely devoted to graduate student study. Each floor has been redesigned in an open-concept fashion — with the removal of walls and other barriers — and has study workstations and a meeting room with audio-visual systems, as well as lockers.

From the tower floors graduate students can look out at the skyline of the university and the city of New Haven while writing their dissertations,” said Lofton. “Graduate study space has quadrupled in the renovated building. The building is an emblem of how important it is to support the forefront of humanities scholarship, which is our graduate students. It is a commitment to their future.”

Stained-glass windows
All of the building’s 3,459 windows were replaced, and 288 decorative stained-glass windows were then repurposed within the new windows.

The 14th floor, at the uppermost part of the tower and boasting an eagle-eye view of the campus, is a space for both faculty members and students to host meetings, special events, and other gatherings. The tower was renamed Swensen Tower in honor of David Swensen, Yale’s chief investment officer, following a gift from Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin ’78 in March 2015.

The new hub for the humanities comes at a moment in time when the study of the humanities is perhaps more relevant than ever, said Lofton, who is also a professor of history and divinity.

In recent times, political forces increasingly threaten universities by undermining traditions of knowledge and the evaluation of facts,” she explained. “The humanities teach us truth and its evaluation.”

The HQ, she added, represents a physical commitment to preserve not only knowledge, but “its perpetuation in the classroom, in student development, and learning.”

The most beautiful spaces in the building are for student learning and interaction. Nearly everywhere you look in this refurbished building you see a space to be in conversation with others. So much consideration was given to making this space a place of learned interaction.”

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324