Over the past few months, a number of preservation groups have complained with increasing volume about the University’s plans to tear down a number of unremarkable buildings located behind the Grove Street Cemetery to make way for its two new residential colleges.
They argue that Yale is destroying centuries of New Haven history in its plans to clear the 6.5-acre site, which currently houses buildings like Hammond Hall and the Mudd Library. In op-eds, in pleading letters to Yale and in public speeches, preservationists have begged that School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern’s ARC ’65 plans for the new colleges be scrapped and redrawn to incorporate the scattering of old buildings that already stand in the area.
“As preservationists, and particularly as inhabitants of New Haven, we thought the noble but misguided approach of urban renewal — tear it all down and start afresh — had been discredited,” C. Michael Tucker, an architect and former president of the New Haven Preservation Trust, wrote in the New Haven Register recently. “Yet Yale … shows that it still hasn’t learned.”
Such a claim is narrow and unfair. It fails to recognize the work the University has done over recent decades to restore and preserve its historic campus. Moreover, it fails to recognize that as an institution evolves, so must its built environment.
On the whole, the buildings Yale is about to raze are generally undistinguished. Anyone who argues that the Mudd Library is an architectural treasure needs to take a good, long step back.
As a News story detailed earlier this week, the University spent significant time examining whether any of the buildings — especially Hammond Hall, arguably the most architecturally unique of the lot — could be worked into the new colleges. Their conclusion was that to do the colleges right, none of the buildings could be preserved. Such a decision correctly prioritizes the integrity of the new colleges over the preservation of Hammond Hall.
But above all else, what is so unfair about the preservationists’ claims is that they fail to see the new colleges — and the proposed demolition to make way for them — in any context. Yale has an outstanding record of historic preservation; the buildings along Hillhouse Avenue, or the Davies Mansion, or Stoeckel Hall bear witness to that fact.
But the reality of progress is that not every building on a college campus, or anywhere, can be “preserved” merely because it is old. After all, if that were the case, we would not have today’s residential colleges, nor modern landmarks like Rudolph Hall or Ingalls Rink or the Yale University Art Gallery.
In other words, historic preservation is not a blind rule, but a balancing act: The preservation of the past must be balanced with the construction that is necessary to allow for growth and progress.
Yale administrators have proven themselves sensitive to that balance. And in this case, the future decidedly outweighs the past.