Coe: A building to keep

The plans for the expansion of Yale’s School of Management call for demolition. One building that is slated go is the former Security Insurance Company building at 175 Whitney Ave. Built in 1924 and used by Yale since 1965, it has been home to the Yale Computer Center and members of the Anthropology Department. For many years, I was one of those members — I kept an archaeology lab in 175 Whitney’s basement — and I do not want to see the building torn down.

The magnificent structure was designed by Henry Killim Murphy, who received his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Yale in 1906, and his partner Richard Henry Dana, who taught at the School of Architecture. I’ve lived in a Murphy and Dana house on Saint Ronan Street since 1960, so I’m aware of just how good these architects were. Though Murphy only designed a handful of buildings for his alma mater, he has a history in Connecticut — he was involved in the planning of many local educational institutions, such as Loomis Chaffee and Hopkins Grammar School.

And Murphy had an international reputation, not just a local following. A few decades after the revolution of 1911, Chiang Kai-shek hired Murphy to be the official architect for the new Republic of China, and its capital Nanjing. In China he designed not only buildings for the Chinese government, but also the Memorial Hall for Revolutionary Martyrs, Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum and a pagoda on Purple Mountain just east of the city. He also was responsible for the preservation of the ancient city walls and went on to design some of China’s major universities, such as the ones in Tsinghua and Beijing.

To this day, Chinese historians consider him a pioneer in the field of urban modernism.

I do not understand Yale’s justification for destroying a beautiful and important building. Couldn’t the University instead adapt the building to fit into Yale’s current plans to create a new SOM campus? The glass emporium they propose for Whitney Avenue may not be an improvement on what is already on the site, and if they go ahead with construction, one of the few buildings by an architectural pioneer this campus can lay claim to will be gone. We will also lose Murphy and Dana’s beautiful entrance rotunda — one almost everyone who has visited or worked the building has admired. Yale should have tried harder to save that.

The University should not feel it has to tear down the old to build the new. After all, two of the world’s greatest universities — Oxford and Cambridge — do not demolish their architectural past as they expand in new academic directions. What Norman Foster has given us in place of a historic building is a gigantic glass mall, totally out of scale with its surroundings and sure to change the character of Whitney Avenue and nearby community.

As I think of the design, I recall the words of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V when he viewed the ugly Gothic church that had been jammed into Córdoba’s ancient Great Aljama Mosque: “You have destroyed something unique to make something commonplace.”

Michael Coe is the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology Emeritus and a curator emeritus at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

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