The renovations disappear. Vanderbilt Hall stands as a pristine example of late 19th century Romanesque architecture. The recently completed construction is noteworthy for its careful refurbishment of the interior, but also invites a broader re-examination of the original building. The quality workmanship calls attention to Yale’s broader physical improvement campaign, while some of the design decisions raise concerns typical of historical renovations.

Designed by Charles G. Haight — who also designed Linsley Hall (today part of Linsley-Chittenden) — Vanderbilt Hall was completed in 1894 as part of a major construction campaign to reshape the Old Campus.

The architects in charge of the renovation, Herbert S. Newman and Partners, strove to execute a renovation that appears to be a restoration. Challenged to embed technological and safety improvements without compromising the integrity of the original building, the design succeeds admirably. The renovated building boasts seamlessly integrated wiring, plumbing and information technology.

Refurbished surfaces comprise the most visible changes to the hall’s interior. The materials and detailing seem carefully considered and well-crafted. A clear finish on the refurbished woodwork combines with new lighting to noticeably brighten the feel of the rooms. Peter Conrad ’64 ARC ’68, the lead architect, said the lighter finish on the oak paneling is likely close to the original condition of the wood, before decades of exposure to sunlight and students caused it to darken. In recognition of Yale’s aristocratic past, the famed Vanderbilt suite has retained a darker stain — a decision drawn from historical inquiry.

The redesign also preserves the building’s original room configurations, sparing the architect any responsibility for the cramped freshmen sleeping quarters. The archetypical Yale suite of two bedrooms and a common room remains.

The basic quality of Vanderbilt Hall, a “U” shaped building, also remains. Its entryways cluster around its own private courtyard. The center, or base of the “U,” supports a tower, pushing skyward and marking the central longitudinal axis of the Old Campus.

As the only building on Old Campus whose front faces the street, Vanderbilt presents a welcoming courtyard to Chapel Street. Herein lies the great enigma of this structure — in the context of the University’s master plan, Haight situated the building backwards. To access the hall from the quadrangle, one approaches the rear of the central tower and walks through a tunnel in the building to emerge in its private courtyard. Only then can a visitor begin to appreciate the front of the building.

It is in this courtyard that the influence of the renovation architect is most obvious. Semicircular “moats” spring from doorway to doorway, bringing light into basement suites. The curves of these depressions and their railings nicely follow the path of students bending out of the tunnel towards their respective entryways. An original raised semicircular plinth in the center of the court continues the round theme.

The circular motif imposed on the courtyard renders the space all but useless. No single area is large enough for gathering or activity. The benches and landscaping’s location in the middle of the courtyard reinforces this problem. Seating ought to be located at the space’s perimeter. Its placement in the middle reduces the effective area of the courtyard to that which remains in front of the bench. The space behind the seating becomes secondary — a bifurcation reinforced by a row of trees and bike racks. The building’s brownstone and iron fence further reinforces this separation.

Vanderbilt is a building open to the city, actively trying to continue Yale and New Haven’s vibrant dialogue down Chapel Street. Yet, Yale residences are purposely hermetic, sealed environments in which students reign. While seating placed by the architects tries to direct the courtyard in towards Old Campus, this redesign fights the natural orientation of the building.

Greater clarity can be found in Yale’s overall renovation plans. In a long overdue acknowledgement of the true value of its buildings, Vanderbilt is one of many structures undergoing renovations in a well publicized improvement campaign. Wisely, Yale makes the investment required to renovate its buildings properly.

“Yale had a generous budget for this building. I think that they would like to get another hundred years out of it,” architect Peter Conrad said.

The refurbishments help re-establish the campus as one of the great urban environments in America. Maintaining this valuable asset improves the quality of life at Yale and in New Haven, directly influencing the University’s ability to attract talented faculty and students.

Due to its relatively modest scale and scope, the Vanderbilt Hall project only hints at the charged issues latent in renovation work. These projects reveal a tension between renovation and restoration, between historical accuracy and progress. In Vanderbilt, the appearance of historical accuracy superceded true restoration. But we value more than just the appearance of history.

It is significant that the University spends the money to renovate its buildings to a level of quality commensurate with the level to which they were originally constructed. To do anything less would be a pastiche creating an image of history. We value the faithful and reasonable maintenance and restoration of our historical buildings because they preserve the sense of place and history embedded within them. In maintaining these buildings for our present use, we understand that our actions today become part of this history — making the restoration of Vanderbilt Hall a statement of optimism about our future.

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