Renovations to bridge gallery gap

Egerton Swartwout graduated from Yale College in 1891, and by 1925 he was a renowned architect presenting plans for a Gallery of Fine Arts at his alma mater.

Swartwout’s design called for an Italian Gothic building that would stretch along Chapel Street from High Street to York Street. This block-long building was never realized because of limited funding, though, and it was Louis Kahn’s Modernist addition of 1953 that extended the Yale University Art Gallery to York Street.

On the other side of the block, however, Swartwout’s legacy remains strong. The bridge he designed to connect the Art Gallery and Street Hall was built, and has been a fixture in New Haven since its completion in 1928.

Now, 80 years later, the Art Gallery is set to cross High Street for the first time, bringing the bridge and Street Hall into its fold. Beginning in December, these two buildings, as well as Swartwout’s Old Art Gallery, will undergo a two-year renovation that will add exhibition and program space for the Art Gallery.

The project, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects, also marks the last major step in Yale’s ambitious arts expansion in the area. And, as with so much of the University’s construction work, the renovation is part of a large game of dominoes.

Jock Reynolds, director of the Art Gallery, explained in a recent interview that the long-desired expansion has only now become feasible.

“For the first time, we’ll have a block and a half of public galleries,” Reynolds said. “Which means when it’s all done, visitors will finally be able to see how much our collection has grown over the years.”

This transformation is made possible by the history of art department’s move from the Old Art Gallery and Street Hall to the just-completed Loria Center. With the department’s old offices vacated, Reynolds explained, the Art Gallery has now begun to empty its galleries in preparation for the start of construction.

The spaces will soon be almost unrecognizable. University Planner Laura Cruickshank said construction would finish by late 2010 or early 2011, with an opening scheduled before Commencement in 2011.

The cost of the project is estimated around $50 million, according to projections from Yale’s Facilities Office. The renovation of Kahn’s portion of the Art Gallery, completed in 2006 and also orchestrated by Polshek’s firm, cost around $44 million. The Kahn gallery will remain open during this coming renovation.

In a telephone interview, Richard Olcott, the Polshek partner working with Yale, described the complications of combining spaces and adding on to such historic buildings.

“For the first time, the Art Gallery will have a great deal of its collection on display in a comprehensive and logical way,” he said. “But it requires careful work, and demands that we stay in conversation with all three buildings.”

Indeed, as the Art Gallery expands across the bridge and into Street Hall, it will add thousands of square feet for display of its art. The project will also include an addition to the Swartwout building that is designed for temporary exhibitions and will sit at the top of the complex. In this way, visitors will naturally progress through all the buildings — entering through Kahn’s addition, working their way through Swartwout and perhaps across the bridge to Street Hall, and finally to the new construction on the building’s roof.

The rooftop will feature not only exhibition space with skylights above, but also a terrace area for outdoor sculptural installations. The placement of the rooftop terrace preserves the view of Swartwout’s facade from the street, allowing the architects to work in a modern style above.

“It’s intended to be rather respectful and not too visible from the street at all,” Olcott said of the addition. “We spent a lot of time with the various powers that be negotiating just how much glass we could use, and just how much you could see the addition from below.”

There will also be more visible changes as part of the project. Reynolds said there would be seven different types of classrooms in the renovated complex; the Art Gallery’s education department will add space as part of its own expansion; and Street Hall will also house a new elevator and stair system.

For its part, Street Hall is itself one of New Haven’s most historic buildings. Completed in 1866, it was designed by Peter Wight and housed the first art school at an American college. While originally designed for classrooms and studios, the renovation will both change its layout and restore it to glory. Jules Prown, an emeritus professor of the History of Art and former curator at the Art Gallery, noted that a 1960s renovation of Street Hall detracted from its splendor.

“The building was really compromised in that renovation,” Prown said. “They really ripped the guts out of it.”

Now, of course, the guts will again be ripped out — but replaced by vast gallery spaces. In that way, Egerton Swartwout’s vision of an art gallery that extended as far as any other building on campus will finally be realized.

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