News’ View: When preservationists go awry

Over the past few months, a number of preservation groups have complained with increasing volume about the University’s plans to tear down a number of unremarkable buildings located behind the Grove Street Cemetery to make way for its two new residential colleges.

They argue that Yale is destroying centuries of New Haven history in its plans to clear the 6.5-acre site, which currently houses buildings like Hammond Hall and the Mudd Library. In op-eds, in pleading letters to Yale and in public speeches, preservationists have begged that School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern’s ARC ’65 plans for the new colleges be scrapped and redrawn to incorporate the scattering of old buildings that already stand in the area.

“As preservationists, and particularly as inhabitants of New Haven, we thought the noble but misguided approach of urban renewal — tear it all down and start afresh — had been discredited,” C. Michael Tucker, an architect and former president of the New Haven Preservation Trust, wrote in the New Haven Register recently. “Yet Yale … shows that it still hasn’t learned.”

Such a claim is narrow and unfair. It fails to recognize the work the University has done over recent decades to restore and preserve its historic campus. Moreover, it fails to recognize that as an institution evolves, so must its built environment.

On the whole, the buildings Yale is about to raze are generally undistinguished. Anyone who argues that the Mudd Library is an architectural treasure needs to take a good, long step back.

As a News story detailed earlier this week, the University spent significant time examining whether any of the buildings — especially Hammond Hall, arguably the most architecturally unique of the lot — could be worked into the new colleges. Their conclusion was that to do the colleges right, none of the buildings could be preserved. Such a decision correctly prioritizes the integrity of the new colleges over the preservation of Hammond Hall.

But above all else, what is so unfair about the preservationists’ claims is that they fail to see the new colleges — and the proposed demolition to make way for them — in any context. Yale has an outstanding record of historic preservation; the buildings along Hillhouse Avenue, or the Davies Mansion, or Stoeckel Hall bear witness to that fact.

But the reality of progress is that not every building on a college campus, or anywhere, can be “preserved” merely because it is old. After all, if that were the case, we would not have today’s residential colleges, nor modern landmarks like Rudolph Hall or Ingalls Rink or the Yale University Art Gallery.

In other words, historic preservation is not a blind rule, but a balancing act: The preservation of the past must be balanced with the construction that is necessary to allow for growth and progress.

Yale administrators have proven themselves sensitive to that balance. And in this case, the future decidedly outweighs the past.

Comments

  • Colin M Caplan

    Your editorial reads like an apology for the University’s blindfolded attitude towards historic preservation and public relations. Further, it appears biased to the idea that Yale’s developments should not be challenged by preservation groups or anyone with an opinion that differs from the University’s desire to expand. These differing opinions, valuable for all parties to hear and understand, should help to bind Yale and New Haven into an agreement of honest and open development intentions. Preservationists and the University have a mutual interest and responsibility in the prosperity, respect and protection of the structures and the land on which they sit. Without this relationship, Yale alone wields a heavy sword into the heart of our City.

  • preservationist

    Hammond and Mudd are university structures. While it is wasteful to destroy them, I agree that in this case, assuming the colleges are built as planned, more is gained from their removal than keeping them. Keeping Hammond or Mudd would remove a massive amount of program space from the new colleges.

    The loss of the small house at the corner of Trumbull and Prospect, however, could have been avoided. That house contributes to the understanding of the neighborhood — Hillhouse Avenue as the nation’s first suburb; the Farmington Canal. Removing it from that site takes a way a big part of New Haven’s historic fabric. Stern can easily keep that house and have just as much program, without any significant compromises.

    Preservation in my view is not about the architecture, it’s about preserving the history of the urban fabric so that future generations can understand how their city once was.

  • cwhig

    Mudd would be a loss, as would Donaldson, but not overwhelming ones. But Yale should take the opportunity, for once, to permit archeological investigations of the site before rebuilding. There is much that could be learned, in a site with much history beneath it.

  • A Pennsylvania Alumnus

    Your editorial about the new residential college plan bases its conclusion on your perception of the value of the individual buildings. But it gives no regard for other important considerations. What is gone awry is not the preservationists, but the sense that stewardship of resources is part of the duty of good citizens, those which Yale professes to wish to educate more of by demolishing worthy, venerable, interesting buildings (contrary to your assessment), not one of which is in bad condition. Maybe you think the Mudd Library is “undistinguished,” but the sheer wastefulness of trashing a building that cost $28 million barely a generation ago speaks for itself. This while Yale claims with a straight face that it will cost too much money to move the buildings, including an estimated $5 million to move a frame house. The entire plan makes a mockery of the principles of wise use.
    As long as Yale continues to have a lot of money, the temptation to demolish and rebuild will likely prove irresistible, until most of the smaller structures that lend the greater campus variety, vitality, and scale will have been eaten up. The architectural homogenization of Yale is hardly something worth celebrating, but that dreary result is inevitable as long as Yale insists it must grow and grow simply because the human population increases.
    If you are in college today, you missed the wholesale destruction of the urban fabric of fine old American cities that occurred in the “urban renewal” period of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Oak Street Connector that slashes New Haven in two is so-called because a vanished and vibrant street once existed there. Bridgeport demolished the finest Gothic Revival mansion in America. New York City permitted the demolition of the finest railroad station in the world. These acts destroyed not just individual buildings but the atmosphere surrounding them. The buildings at issue here sit adjacent to one of the most beautiful urban streets in the country. None of this was considered, nor where Yale plans to expand (the Green?) when it finally runs out of space.