Soon after the late Eero Saarinen ARCH ’34 took the commission to design a new hockey rink for Yale in 1956, he sent an associate, David Powrie, on a trip.

In a telephone interview last week, Powrie recalled his whirlwind journey across the northeast almost as a reconnaissance mission. He remembers cataloging the details of an assortment of New England’s many rinks — from seating capacity to sight lines, from ice-cooling systems to locker sizes.

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Saarinen’s penchant for research was famous by the 1950s, but the Ingalls Rink he designed bears almost no relation to any hockey rink built before (or after) its time. Judging by what Powrie saw on his trip, though, this was with good reason.

“For hockey rinks, you see, the state of the art in those days was really just a shed,” said Kevin Roche, a deputy of Saarinen’s who has gone on to achieve international fame in his own right.

Powrie’s extensive research, then, was not of much use in planning the façade of what is now known as the “Yale Whale.” On the inside, though, Powrie and Saarinen collaborated to make sure that the Whale was more than just an architectural icon; it had to be a suitable home for Yale’s hockey program, as well.

But, since the Whale’s completion in 1959, hockey on campus has changed quite a bit — not least in that Yale now fields both men’s and women’s varsity teams. And so, about 50 years after the Whale was built, the building that initially cost just over $1,000,000 is undergoing a $23-million, year-and-a-half-long renovation and addition.

From the outside, however, few will be able to tell that any new work went into the building. Robert A.M. Stern ARCH ’65, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said this is the hallmark of a good renovation project.

“The hand of the renovating architect will be invisible,” Stern said. “What more could you ask for?”

The hand, after all, is one that has worked on the rink before. Roche, who in 1982 received architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, is in the unlikely position of working twice on the same building — once as Saarinen’s assistant and, a half-century later, as Saarinen’s successor.

No matter how soft Roche’s touch will be on the Whale’s edifice, however, hockey players and spectators alike will have a very different rink to enjoy when all the work is finished in the fall of 2009.

Associate Director of Athletics Barbara Chesler, who coordinates facilities for the Athletics Department, said the project will be completed in two phases. Crews began work on the first phase just a few weeks ago and will continue until October as they almost completely overhaul the Whale’s insides. Visibility will be improved as the ice itself is lowered and replaced; new seats will be added throughout the rink; and all of the stone and cement will be thoroughly cleaned.

After a brief hiatus for the winter hockey season, Chesler said, work will continue at a fervent pace in the spring of 2009. Phase two will radically change the Whale, albeit only below ground. The second phase will add new men’s and women’s varsity locker rooms as well as strength and conditioning rooms and other support facilities.

Jayne Merkel, an architectural writer who recently completed a survey of Saarinen’s work, said these changes are long overdue and in large part inevitable.

“The rink was obviously designed for a men’s college,” Merkel said. “But it was also designed for the 1950s.”

The addition of women doubled the number of those who use the Whale. Chesler noted, though, that hockey itself has changed dramatically since Saarinen completed the Whale.

“Yale’s athletics teams are now conditioning and playing year-round,” she said. “We have two varsity teams with larger squads, and the building just doesn’t have the spaces we need.”

Back in Saarinen’s day, the rink was large enough not only to accommodate hockey games but also to host commencement and other public events.

Many of these functions were routine, but what happened in the Whale during April and May of 1970, when Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale was on trial for murder in New Haven, was far from ordinary. On April 21, almost 5,000 people gathered in the rink for a rally. Just a few weeks later, on May 1, a peaceful crowd gathered again at the rink to hear rock music. Just as the concert was ending, bombs exploded from the rink’s basement, cracking the famed arched ceiling.

At some point during those tumultuous times, someone in the audience spray painted “Free Bobby” on the rink’s walls. As part of the renovation, this graffiti will be preserved and plaques added to commemorate the Whale’s storied past.

“The rink has a history besides its architectural history,” Merkel said. “But sometimes they converge.”

Without a doubt, Ingalls is now one of Yale’s most prominent and historic buildings. But it was almost never built.

Things had not looked so bad at first in 1956. Griswold had finally managed to bring Saarinen to campus, and Saarinen’s design did not disappoint. Or at least it did not disappoint Griswold, who had an unabashed love for modern architecture.

But as 1956 went on, Saarinen’s plan for a swooping, Viking-ship-like rink proved alarming to many who mattered most for the project: members of the Hockey Committee and even Louise Ingalls, wife of donor David Ingalls ’20. It was up to Griswold and Saarinen, then, to convince these holdouts that good design could be as important for a hockey rink as for an art gallery.

The architect and architecture-aficionado-turned-president recruited four of Yale’s most prominent art historians to endorse the proposed rink. The professors (among them was the architectural historian Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49) could not decide whether the building would be revered for its Gothic, Roman or Asian roots. But they did know they liked the Whale, and their description of the building is as fitting today as it was in 1956.

“What impressed us all,” the four wrote in a letter, “was the character and integrity of principle as carried out with Twentieth-Century means — quite up to date, yet never likely to go out of date.”