When Morse College students move back into their rooms this coming fall, they will finally be able to fit their square IKEA side tables into the corners of their rooms: Morse College will have right angles.
As renovations of the college continue, alterations have already become visible. There are new sinks in the bathrooms, new skylights in the common room — and perpendicular angles in the majority of dorm rooms, a compromise to accommodate the college’s new heating system.
Just a year shy of its golden jubilee, Morse is undergoing its most drastic changes since its construction in 1961, the same year the college’s architect, Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, died. So far, the $150 million project has been on budget and on schedule to be completed by August, if not “a hair ahead,” Yale facilities construction manager Danielle Gunther-Gawlak said during a tour of the renovations Thursday. But as the project moves forward, its principal architect, Evan Yassky of the Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake, said staying true to Saarinen’s vision — including the structure’s iconic lack of right angles — has been a recurring challenge.
“We want to make sure the college doesn’t look different from what Saarinen intended,” Yassky said. He added that the college’s new additions — from the two-story underground recreational space to be shared with Ezra Stiles College to the angular skylights to be added to Morse’s common room — are all designed with Saarinen and his aesthetic in mind.
But inside the college’s dorm rooms is a different story. Though the college is built in the Modernist style, its aged facilities were anything but modern, Yassky said. Many of Morse’s internal systems, from electrical to fire safety, needed to be upgraded or replaced. An unexpected challenge was the difficulty of upgrading heating mechanisms inside the college because of the irregular angles of the buildings, Yassky said.
When the college was completed nearly 50 years ago, it was heated by means of hot water pipes cast into the concrete of the college’s floors. But some time in the 1980s, the pipes failed, and because they could not be pried out of the concrete, the University put together a slapdash set of above-ground heaters throughout Morse, said Chris Meyer of Turner Construction Company, the general superintendent of the current renovation. These were neither dependable nor particularly effective, he added.
Determined to get it right this time around, the University asked the architects at KieranTimberlake for a thorough overhaul of the heaters. But Morse’s irregular interior corners have turned the otherwise simple task of installing radiators around the rooms’ perimeters into a costly puzzle.
“It’s a challenge that I didn’t quite appreciate when we first started the project,” Yassky said. “It’s not like, instead of 90 degree angles, Saarinen used 70 or 80 degree angles. Every angle was different.”
Fitting each crooked corner with custom pipes would cost millions, Yassky said, so the firm modified the majority of the rooms to include more square corners for the heating. These new perpendicular walls are particularly noticeable inside the college’s new common rooms, where some walls have been opened or removed to create the suite-style residential spaces typical of Yale’s other colleges.
“It’s been a fascinating experience and intellectually stimulating to engage with Saarinen’s design,” Yassky said.
Architect Cesar Pelli, who worked with Saarinen on Morse’s design, said most people will see the buildings unchanged after the renovation because the project is careful in avoiding unnecessary alterations to the original.
Angles aside, Gunther-Gawlak said budgetary issues have so far not been a major concern during the renovations because the University has been committed to completing the highest quality renovation, not wanting to return later to repair or provide neglected necessities.
“The residential college system is vital to the superlative experience offered by Yale College,” University President Richard Levin said in an October press release. “There is no investment by the University more important than preserving the system and its singular buildings.”
In this case, the renovation required a different set of considerations than for the other colleges — to make up for the lack of suites in Morse’s original construction.
“There will be dramatic reorganization to create much more of a suite arrangement,” said School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65. “Morse and Stiles were very much shortchanged in comparison to the other colleges, so there is a dramatic expansion of the colleges underground.”
Yassky said resolving the challenges they are facing during the Morse renovations will also facilitate the Ezra Stiles College renovations next year.
At the center of the construction site, a muddy mess crowded by heavy machinery, the scene looks nothing like the grassy collegiate knoll that existed there just a year before. Nonetheless, Meyer said everything is coming along as planned.
“This area is going to be planted,” Meyer said, pointing around the courtyard. “You’re going to see pretty much the same landscaping as before, but the slope will be somewhat leveled out.”
Little work has been done so far on Morse’s exterior — and not much is planned for it. The ivy that Saarinen had originally hoped would cover the college’s walls will not grow on the college’s walls, Yassky said, because of University policies against allowing ivy for fear of structural damage to surfaces. There are also no cracks to fill and no severe surface discoloration to fix, Yassky added; while the architectural merit of the college remains debated, its physical walls have withstood the test of time.
Though renovations will not remain entirely loyal to Saarinen’s original design, some things will not change. Claes Oldenburg’s ’50 sculpture “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks,” will return to its old perch at the foot of the Morse tower, University Planner Laura Cruickshank said in November.
The Morse dining hall’s characteristic angular bronze light fixtures will also return, but they will be cleaned, refurbished and fitted with energy-efficient technologies, said Steve Stockman, the owner of Grand Lighting, the company responsible for returning the shine to the college’s lights.
“Primarily we have to maintain the integrity of the historical look, while providing more energy-efficient light technologies,” Stockman said. “We’re not just changing light bulbs.”
The new technologies, which include dimming capabilities, motion sensors and fluorescent bulbs, are part of the renovation’s efforts to obtain a LEED certification, Stockman added.
Gunther-Gawlak added that the success of the renovations is due both to good luck and good planning. The weather has so far been kind enough to allow construction to continue without much delay, she said, and on the days when the weather has been unusually nice, the construction crew has worked hard so as not to fall behind schedule.
On the sunny Thursday afternoon of the tour, Meyer turned to a nearby construction worker to ask how the day’s plans had progressed.
“We’re on time on everything,” the worker replied. “We’ve got everyone and their moms here working right now.”
Saarinen’s original sketches and hand-drawn plans for Morse will be on display at “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future,” opening Friday at the School of Architecture and the Yale University Art Gallery.