There was a time when New Haven was a major manufacturing center, when factories in town stayed busy making everything from rifles to Erector sets.
Those factories have now closed, of course, and the plant where A.C. Gilbert’s company built millions of Erector sets in the first half of the last century today has a yoga studio on its ground floor. But in a two-room space on the second floor of that plant, Kent Bloomer ’59 ART ’61 is still tinkering away at the kind of projects Gilbert loved most.
Bloomer, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture who grew up building small models out of Gilbert’s toys, calls himself an ornamenter, which is to say that while he does not design buildings, he does design some of their most memorable parts. He has been charged with crafting the facade and a frieze for the 360 State development, and he is responsible for the entrance gate to the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building, without a doubt the most exciting piece of metalwork to appear on campus since Samuel Yellin unveiled his Memorial Quadrangle gate.
Consider also Bass Library, where the renovation overseen by Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge Architects benefited tremendously from Bloomer’s eye for detail. There, Bloomer and his colleagues were able to make the library’s two new entrances feel like true connections with Cross Campus and Sterling Memorial Library.
Bloomer designed the ornamentation on the elevator pavilion that leads to Bass; the frieze that wraps around it includes a series of elaborate carvings, and the pavilion’s arches are surrounded by perched owls that are meant to symbolize knowledge.
“We’re very dedicated to ornament,” Bloomer said in an interview yesterday at his studio, where prototypes of various projects are strewn around on tables and walls. “I think we’re fairly unique in that we operate the way many studios did at the turn of the 20th century. We operate as a property of architecture and of art.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to classify Bloomer’s work as artistic or architectural. He has been in the field since 1964, and even his most recent project on campus — a pair of display cases in front of the University Theatre — is one part good decoration and one part good campus planning.
The challenge given to Bloomer was not just to create spaces for the Yale School of Drama to display its promotional posters, but also to create structures that would change the way pedestrians interact with the rather nondescript theater.
“The building, without some kind of addition, doesn’t increase your pulse rate as you walk by,” explained John Gambell, the University printer who was instrumental in commissioning Bloomer for the work in front of the theater and for the display cases in front of Woolsey Hall, which were installed in 2007. “The primary motive was to create a more dramatic presence on the street for the University Theatre.”
Working with University Planner Laura Cruickshank and others, Bloomer positioned his display cases on axis with the Library Walk that connects the theater and Dwight Hall, and put decorative elements on the tops of the cases so they could announce the presence of the theater.
The bronze ornamentation at the top of the stainless steel cases, like Bloomer’s work at Bass Library and in front of Woolsey, also undeniably expresses an enthusiasm for the Collegiate Gothic architecture that abounds on campus.
“It expresses the spirit of the great period of Yale architecture,” Bloomer said. “Like the buildings, these designs come alive almost as creatures — showing ebullience, showing aspiration, showing excitement.”