After three years of planning, restoration and construction, the nave of Sterling Memorial Library has been revitalized as a space for students, staff and other patrons.
From restored stained-glass windows to enhanced lighting to new technology-rich study spaces, the renovations touched all aspects of the nave in an attempt to both preserve the collegiate gothic style envisioned by Sterling’s architect James Gamble Rogers and enhance the library’s technological offerings.
“Part of the success of what we’ve been able to do is restore the library to its original grandeur and reveal some beauty not as easily seen,” said David Helpern, founder of Helpern Architects, the practice that spearheaded the renovation plans in conjunction with Turner Construction Company. “James Gamble Rogers envisioned [Sterling] as something that looked to the future as well as the past. We wanted to be as true as possible to his vision,” he added.
To this end, Helpern said “every inch” of the stone surfaces, which had deteriorated in some places, was repaired, refinished and cleaned. Referencing the discovery of the stone surfaces to be multicolored sandstone and limestone, Director of Access Services Brad Warren said that the renovation revealed details obscured by the accumulation of 80 years of dirt and decay.
Warren added that the nave’s stained-glass windows experienced a similar process of restoration to reveal minute details in the artwork. With regard to the mural “Alma Mater,” associate University librarian for program development and research Kendall Crilly said that most attention was paid to the replacement of certain aspects of the plaster arbor that had gone missing. He added that the ceilings were also carefully cleaned.
One of the challenges of the restoration, which was financed by a $20 million donation made by Richard Gilder ’54 and Lois Chiles, was striking a balance between preserving the original intent of the building’s architecture and modernizing it for the needs of the 21st century.
“Sterling Memorial Library was very deliberately and consciously designed using the architectural metaphor of a cathedral: This is Yale’s cathedral of learning and knowledge,” University Librarian Susan Gibbons said in an email.
In homage to this vision, when Sterling was built in the 1930s, the circulation desk acted as both an altar at the “crossing of the nave” and a barrier for students, who were not allowed into the book stacks. Because all students today may access the stacks, the barrier is no longer necessary, but removing the desk entirely would disrupt Rogers’ vision of Sterling. The compromise, Gibbons said, was to trim the size of the desk to allow patrons to pass by on either side.
The leftover wood, she added, was used for the construction of a new information desk on the north side of the nave, consolidating the former circulations, privileges and information desks. In the past, patrons had to decide which desk was most suited to their question, Gibbons said.
Rowillie Ross, evening and weekend teamleader in Sterling’s access services department, said that staff members at the desk have been cross-trained in the three areas of expertise.
In addition to this main desk, Helpern said that there are also desks interspersed in the nave as a means of individual consultation that students can have with librarians.
He added that the most evident architectural change is the removal of some of Sterling’s card catalogs along the south aisle of the nave to create study spaces with seating, tables and upgraded computer workstations.
Further technological innovation comes in the form of variety of self-service features in the space formerly designated for circulations. Ross said that while Sterling had some self-service features before, machines were often out-of-service or difficult to use. Now, the library is “completely self-service,” with features for both checking out books and retrieving items on hold, as well as more scanners and computer workstations.
More advanced security features, as well as modern heating, air conditioning, and LED lighting, have also been integrated into the nave.
“The nave is now lit in a way that could not have been done in James Gamble Rogers’s time,” Helpern said. In addition to historic lamps and natural light, Helpern said “a lot of discrete uplighting” tucked away in the nave’s many balconies “flood” the space with light to showcase the nave’s beauty.
Students and administrators interviewed praised the renovated nave’s aesthetic appeal and commitment to tradition.
“It is nearly impossible to tell what wood, stone, glass and iron work is original to the building and what was crafted as part of this restoration,” Gibbons said.
Haesoo Park GRD ’18 said that the renovation reveals the exquisite patterns in the ceiling. Still, he added, though the seating area harmonizes nicely with the rest of the nave, a greater number of desks in the area would have been more appealing to students. However, Nathaly Aramayo ’17, who works in Sterling’s stacks operations, said she believes the study environment makes the nave more patron-friendly and convenient.
In honor of the completed renovations, there will be an open house in Sterling Memorial Library from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sept. 18 with tours and refreshments.