Woolsey on ‘wish list’

Varying effects of cleaning solvents in the Woolsey rotunda.
Varying effects of cleaning solvents in the Woolsey rotunda. Photo by Nora Caplan-Bricker.

One of Yale’s most iconic spaces may be in need of a face-lift, but it’s unlikely to get one any time soon.

The spacious Commons eatery and the 2,700-seat Woolsey Hall auditorium often house large-scale gatherings, from formal meals like the Freshman Holiday Dinner and traditional events like Convocation. University President Richard Levin said these spaces have fallen behind much of Yale’s newly renovated campus. But other projects have consistently taken precedence and, especially in light of the recession, will continue to do so.

“They’re vast spaces, and they’re going to be quite expensive to renovate,” Levin said. “While they are certainly deserving of a renovation, they’re serviceable, and they still have an aura of elegance and grandeur and importance in our community.”

While the economic downturn has forced the delay of $2 billion in building projects, Levin said Commons and Woolsey were not among them. New residential colleges, the School of Management building, an updated biology facility and the renovation of the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory would all have broken ground if not for the crash, but Woolsey and Commons remained “on the wish list, but not the to-do list,” Levin said.

They have been there for years. Although administrators looked into tentative renovation plans and budgets nearly a decade ago, Provost Peter Salovey said administrators have never found refurbishing Woolsey and Commons as pressing as other projects, such as building Loria Hall, Rosenkranz Hall and a host of new buildings on Science Hill and renovating the 12 residential colleges, the Rudolph Center and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Still, a quick walk through the Woolsey rotunda reveals cracked floors and discolored walls.

University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said administrators dreamed of receiving a gift to fund the renovations upon Yale’s tercentennial in 2001, the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction. She added she still hopes the University will find a donor for these spaces in the next decade, but with the development office focusing on the two new residential colleges and the SOM building, they are far from the top of the list.

Levin said the cost to renovate Commons was estimated at over $50 million nearly a decade ago, and Woolsey was expected to cost more than $100 million. Those numbers would be higher today, he added.

Each space presents its own engineering challenges. In Commons, the question is how best to install air conditioning to make the dining hall more pleasant in the early fall and late spring. But given the room’s size, and a lack of convenient places to conceal air condition ducts, this won’t be an easy task, Levin said.

In Woolsey, Levin said the echoing acoustics —which have led members of the Yale Concert Band to affectionately call the space a “toilet bowl” — need an update. The auditorium was built for organ music, which requires a great deal of reverberation, which is why the seats are wooden and don’t have cloth padding that would absorb sound. But the hall’s excessive resonance can sometimes swallow up orchestral music or the spoken word, Levin said.

Levin said he hopes to someday install mechanical elements into Woolsey’s ceiling, making it possible to change the acoustics to fit the occasion at hand.

Correction: March 25, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Rosenkranz Hall.

Comments

  • Yale ’10

    I LIKE the old crusty aspects of Woolsey. Likewise some of the other buildings that have gone for renovation. KEEP the rippling marble, KEEP the feeling of times past and the passage of time that spaces like Woolsey have.

  • Old Blue

    I agree with Yale ’10. Likewise with Commons. Renovating Commons is in a sense, akin to renovating a old church – its identity is tied up in its gloomy spaciousness.