The Yale University Art Gallery, the first major commission of renowned modernist architect Louis Kahn, is about to reopen to the public after a three-year, $44 million renovation.

The renovations have restored original elements of Kahn’s design that deteriorated or were altered over the years. Architects have also updated problematic features of the building to meet the needs of a 21st-century museum, and the building’s Dec. 10 reopening marks a vast expansion of exhibition space for the gallery’s over 185,000 objects.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”14749″ ]

“I think Louis Kahn would have been very pleased with how we dealt with both the functionality of this building and the aesthetics of it,” gallery Director Jock Reynolds said.

Completed by Kahn in 1953, the gallery is widely recognized as an architectural masterpiece. Kahn received the commission for the building while he was the chief critic in the Department of Architecture. It is Yale’s first significant modernist building, standing diagonally across the street from Kahn’s final commission, the Yale Center for British Art.

Three special exhibitions will open Dec. 10 in conjunction with the gallery’s reopening. “Responding to Kahn: A Sculptural Conversation,” on view on the first floor, was organized entirely by Yale students and gallery interns. The other temporary exhibitions — “Jasper Johns: From Plate to Print” and “Making a Mark: Four Contemporary Artists in Print” — are located on the fourth floor and will be open until April 1.

University President Richard Levin said the University’s commitment to the renovations underscores its ongoing dedication to the arts. As part of the Master Plan for the Yale Arts Area, the school is renovating many of its arts facilities, building a new home for the History of Art Department, and creating a sculpture gallery for the School of Art.

“It is essentially a decade-long plan to renovate the spaces of all of our arts activities,” Levin said.

Jill Westgard, director of development for the gallery, said in an e-mail that the $500 million designated for arts projects in the comprehensive $3 billion Yale Tomorrow campaign supports a number of arts projects on the Yale campus, not just the gallery.

“When you think that the $500 million is divided among the needs of several schools, departments and museums, the number is not so large in comparison to the funds being raised for other campus priorities,” Westgard said.

Duncan Hazard ’71, the lead architect of the renovation and of the master arts area plan, said his greatest challenge was restoring the building’s striking exterior window walls. Because the steel in these walls transmitted outdoor temperature and moisture into the interior, the gallery faced such extensive condensation problems that Kahn himself installed pans soon after he completed the building in order to collect water dripping from the windows, Hazard said. Hazard is a partner at Polshek Partnership Architects, the firm that designed the renovations.

The building will now feature an elevator three times the size of the original, which will allow art to be carried more easily to the upper levels of the gallery, and renovations have made all floors handicapped-accessible, Hazard said.

In addition to the structural changes, University officials said, restoring Kahn’s vision was an important goal of the project. In the late 1950s, the main interior concrete and brick walls were plastered white, and black plugs were put in the gaps between Kahn’s original “pogo walls,” a flexible system on which to display art, Reynolds said. As part of the renovation, new pogo walls were built following Kahn’s design, and they are now being used to display the gallery’s collections of African, Asian, early European and modern art.

“They ruined his building,” said Vincent Scully, professor emeritus of the history of art and a colleague of Kahn’s. “Kahn never spoke to [former chair of the School of Architecture Paul] Rudolph again.”

Kahn and Scully where both hired in 1947 by the then-School of Art and Architecture.

The adjoining Swartwout building will continue to house the gallery’s American and ancient art until that building closes for renovations in 2008.

Many students and art critics who have seen the restored building praised the renovations.

“It’s stunning, it’s awe inspiring,” said Melissa Doerken ’07, a gallery guide who has visited the renovated building. “They’ve done an incredible job renovating, and they’ve paid such attention to detail. Everything is very precise and well done and very faithful to [Kahn’s] original vision.”

Jayne Merkel, a contributing editor of Architectural Design, said the University has done a thorough job of restoring the building, which she said holds an important place on Yale’s campus.

“Yale has probably the most historically significant campus in America,” she said. “Certainly in this period — the 1950s — there’s no comparison.”

But some critics said the importance of Kahn’s building has been exaggerated by the University.

“It’s not that astonishing of a modernist building,” said Adrian Dannatt, a writer for The Art Newspaper. “It’s a small, modest, nice building, but I don’t think it’s so important … but the collection is fantastic.”

Dannatt said the gallery is less impressive and architecturally significant than the Center for British Art — the final work of Kahn’s career.

After renovations to the Swartwout building and Street Hall are completed in 2011, the gallery’s collections will be distributed between the three buildings and objects will be rotated more frequently — about every six months, Reynolds said.

Reynolds said he held discussions with many students and administrators to decide how best to use the renovated spaces.

“This building has been programmed by every constituency that works in this museum,” he said.

The gallery also hired additional staff and worked intensively to improve cataloging in order to make the gallery’s collections more easily accessible to the public, Reynolds said.

Levin said the newly renovated gallery will enhance the liberal arts education offered at Yale.

“The University is about the pursuit of the life of the mind … but the culture that we transmit to the next generation is more than what is written in books,” Levin said.

On Dec. 6, the Kahn gallery will open for a special preview to the Yale community from noon to 10 p.m.