Saarinen gems stored in Yale archive

An original pencil sketch by Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 of David S. Ingalls Rink, more commonly known as the Whale, shows downturned tails.
An original pencil sketch by Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 of David S. Ingalls Rink, more commonly known as the Whale, shows downturned tails.

Starchitect Eero Saarinen’s ARC ’34 elegant models for the TWA Terminal of JFK Airport and the St. Louis Gateway Arch have already toured through Helsinki, Finland, St. Louis and New York. But the thousands of visitors to the retrospective “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” so far have not seen the hand-drawn sketches of Morse and Stiles Colleges — nor have they seen his 1934 report card from the Yale School of Architecture.

These and other items from the University’s Saarinen archives will be on display exclusively in New Haven, when the show opens this Friday. While many of the materials will be inaccessible after the exhibition completes its last stop at Yale, Saarinen’s legacy will be preserved through the stewardship of Yale. The Saarinen archives, located in a dark nook in Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives, is the most comprehensive collection of Saarinen’s work, comprising 750 boxes of documents and objects and making Yale the premier guardian of Saarinen’s legacy, said Laura Tatum, archivist of architectural documents at the library.

“It’s a very important architectural resource for Yale,” School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said in November, when the Ingalls Rink renovations were completed. “We’re very lucky to have these archives.”

Among the items in the collection that the exhibit’s viewers won’t see are Saarinen’s Finnish passport from when he immigrated to America, a monogrammed IBM notepad with hand-drawn sketches of floor plans and condolence letters mailed to Saarinen’s widow, Aline, from sculptor Alexander Calder and architect Philip Johnson.

“Eero’s place is secured,” Johnson penned in blue ink. “We can only be sorry for ourselves.”

Indeed securing Saarinen’s place is the purpose of the archives, Tatum said. The pieces in the archive provide a history and context for the finished products that landmark Saarinen’s career.

A 1956 pencil sketch of Yale’s Ingalls Rink, for instance, shows that Saarinen initially designed the “tails” of the structure to point into the ground, rather than rising into the sky as they were built.

“This archive is very special,” University Planner Laura Cruickshank said in November during a press tour of the archives. “It’s very interesting to see how the rink evolved.”

The University’s architectural archives have long had a reputation for being limited, said Dean Sakamoto, critic and director of exhibitions at the School of Architecture. It was Stern’s initiative that led to the expansion of the archives, he added.

Thursday afternoon, in a dimly lit office with detailed wood paneling and windows of stone tracery, Tatum stood with a folder of materials she had pulled for the upcoming exhibition. Her personal desk is currently located outside the reading room, and Tatum jokingly referred to the site as “a disaster” buried under items pulled for the exhibition.

All of this, Tatum said, is part of the library’s goal to get “students in here using materials.” And so far, she added, the Saarinen archives have been wildly successful.

“Oh my God, so far the attention has been unbelievable,” she said. “I don’t think anyone expected it.”

Tatum estimated the collection to be among the top three most requested at Manuscripts and Archives, alongside the historical records of the University and the archives of psychic Jane Roberts. Frequent visitors include architectural historians, School of Architecture classes and documentary filmmakers working on Saarinen-related projects, she said.

Tatum was in charge of the archiving project that filed and organized the Saarinen materials in Yale’s possession. The collection was founded in 1971 with a set of letters and drawings handed down by Aline Saarinen. However, Bill Massa, the library’s head of collection development, said the bulk of today’s archives arrived through a 2002 donation by Kevin Roche and his architecture firm, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates.

“We are delighted that it is now possible to transfer these important archives to Yale University,” Roche said in a 2002 press release. “It is what Eero would have wished.”

Roche, who won the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1982, worked in Saarinen’s firm in 1950 until Saarinen’s death in 1961. He collected much of the archival material for the project, storing tubes of drawings and boxes of documents in the boiler room of the firm he later founded in Hamden, Conn., Tatum said.

“I have worked with a lot of collections where all you have are prints of drawings,” she added. “It’s amazing that [Saarinen] retained so many of his original drawings.”

Tatum first came to Yale in 2002 as a Kress Fellow in Art Librarianship, where she split her time working between the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library and Manuscripts and Archives. In 2007, she became a permanent archivist, under the title of architectural records archivist, working to compile a comprehensive inventory of the Saarinen items.

Certainly, she said, her work as an architecture archivist “feels very intuitive.” After a lifetime of working in libraries — from a teenage job at her local public library in Portland, Ore., to shelving books at the Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library as a freshman at Columbia — Tatum said she is lucky to have always had her passions for libraries and architecture clearly defined.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale School of Architecture.

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