Now that I’m at Yale daily, it’s fun to explore. Today, I wandered over to Sterling Memorial Library, the main library on campus, to see its newly renovated nave. Nave. You know. That entry way in your home…or medieval cathedral.
When I last wrote about Sterling, the nave was under scaffolding. Originally constructed in 1930-1, it needed a serious overhaul for technology and systems and a plain ol’, good, general cleaning. After a year and twenty million dollars, this meticulous restoration and preservation of the original now reflects the needs of contemporary students.
Period touches remain. The card catalog. Today’s students don’t really know what that is. But the catalog banks are in place (even as the cards have been archived) because of one tradition: opening the drawers to various degrees to spell out messages, like ‘Yale’. I can definitely picture that. Can’t you?
The ends of the card catalog also hide the environmental controls. So do the carved stone sculptures on the gallery level. LED lights, including uplighting that reveals the ceiling, are hidden all through the structure. Clever!
Every surface was gray from grime and cigarette smoke. The Indiana limestone was cleaned with a latex peel–apply and peel off the schmutz. The ceiling involved a 2-step process. First a magic eraser was used, literally erasing about half the dirt. Then a wash took off the rest.
Those are painted panels on wood, and they are loose, laid into the wooden lattice. Librarian Ken Crilly, our tour guide, said he lifted one by hand while standing on the top level of scaffolding, called the ‘dance floor.’ Being up there is not for the faint-of-heart. The scaffolding was “springy,” said Ken. Imagine, too, there’s an attic above that painted ceiling, now with a new catwalk.
The more than 3000 windows are a decorative treasure, considered the finest secular stained glass collection in the world. All the leaded glass was designed by G. Owen Bonawit, with each portraying what is going on in that room. Ken relays a great story. He works in Room 333, which was reserved for the Asian collections in the 1930s. Although unknown in the US, Ken jokes he is famous in Japan, from the streams of tourists come to photograph the geisha and samurai warriors shown in the windows.
In the nave, the windows teach local history, just as the windows in medieval cathedrals taught religious stories. New Haven and Yale history are memorialized. Depicted are the ministers bringing the books from Yale’s original location in Saybrook, CT to New Haven in 1701, while also including the residents sneaking away with the books that fell off the loaded ox carts. Then there’s the Colonial-dressed men eating at a table. Apparently, they represent the Yale undergraduates caught stealing chicken from Mrs. So-and-So.
Gloriously, the nave displays 1930s art faculty member Eugene Savage’s painting on canvas of Alma Mater, as if the Virgin Mary. Yale’s blue and white just happens to correspond to the traditional colors of the painted Mary, and its motto translates into “Light and Truth,” making for the perfect allegorical figures. There’s Painting in blue, too, palette in hand. Perhaps a self-portrait of the artist in medieval garb?
It’s all there, there in the nave, in seriousness and good fun. Just what college should be.