In March 1959, Yale library head James T. Babb and brothers (and Yale Alumni) Edwin and Frederick Beinecke began discussions about construction of a new space to house Yale's growing collection of rare books, which were then located in Sterling Memorial Library. The Beinecke Family financed the project as a gift to the university. The new building would need to provide protection for the rare books, many of which where in very fragile condition; exist as a state-of-the-art research facility for scholars; and to be physically striking, as if to visually convey the importance of its holdings. In October 1959, after much discussion over the choice of architect, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was chosen. Bunshaft designed a two-component, 88,347-square-foot building: A six-story above-ground structure, a fully open space with an interior enclosed-glass temperature-controlled tower to house 160,000 books; and a below-ground area containing stacks, office space, classrooms, a study area, and a garden courtyard designed by Isamu Noguchi. Daylight is broadcast in through a grid of Vermont Montclair Danby marble panes that glow at night from interior illumination. The building’s dimensions are mathematically proportioned: it is twice the width of its height and three times as long. Construction began in early 1960. Fuller Construction managed the project. The Beinecke family has never revealed the cost. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library was dedicated on October 11, 1963. Its holdings include maps and letters from the Lewis and Clark exhibition; documents from Boccacio, Wordsworth, Joseph Conrad, and Gertrude Stein; and a 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, one of only 48 known copies still in existence.
Bunshaft designed the Beinecke as a two-component structure on a 200’-0” x 350’-0” site plan. The largest and most visible component is the six-story above-ground structure (86'-0” x 130'-0” x 58'-0”), which is a fully open space containing an interior glass-curtain-wall enclosed temperature-controlled tower (35'-0” x 60'-0”) to house books. The smaller component is a below-ground research center that contains stacks, office space, classrooms, a study area, and a garden courtyard designed by Isamu Noguchi. The library’s total square footage is 88,347. The roof of the subterranean area serves as the plaza, which is a central social landmark on the Yale campus. The above-ground structure sits in the heart of the Yale campus and can best be described as a giant marble cube. It is a stark contrast to the older surrounding buildings that are more evocative of collegiate scholarship. Many have described the Beinecke as a “jewel box,” which is not surprising given the warm glow the illuminated marble exudes after the sun has set. The original interior appointments were lush and dark: bronze, black leather upholstery, wood paneling, teak tables and desks, carpeted and granite floors. The mid-1990s retrofit replaced much of the textiled elements with more contemporary furnishings and materials. The sculpture garden, which was sunk into the center of the plaza, contains three large marble sculptures from Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. The three sculptures are in the shapes of a pyramid, a globe, and a cube.
The above-ground structure is built with Vierendeel welded steel tapered-cross trusses into which a grid of 1 1/4-inch-thick Vermont Montclair Danby marble panes have been fit. Each façade consists of a single steel truss (four total). Each truss bears its own weight plus some of the roof load; this weight is transferred through reinforced steel girders to the corner columns. The roof is steel-framed and steel-decked. The weight of the building is supported by four bronze-covered pin joints on granite-covered reinforced concrete corner columns. The columns extend fifty feet below grade to bedrock. The interior core also bears some of the weight of the roof. All columns, walls, and floors are reinforced concrete. The exterior steel is clad in granite while the interior frame is clad in precast stone and granite. Because the weight of the building is focused into the four corner columns the plaza level and entry area provide a seamless circulation plane.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library sits prominently and visibly in the center of the Yale University campus. It is a “new” building nestled among the old, which is an apt juxtaposition given that the library’s holdings are some of the oldest texts in existence. While different in style than the surrounding buildings, the library is similar in proportion ad scale. Across the plaza (known as both Beinecke Plaza and Hewitt Quadrangle) are Commons, Memorial Hall, and Woolsey Hall, a Beaux-Arts Carrere and Hastings complex that houses an auditorium, dining hall, and administrative offices; and Woodbridge Hall, where the office of the president is located. To the south of the Beinecke, across Wall Street, sits medieval-inspired Berkeley College, and just west of Berkeley is Sterling Memorial Library, a granite gothic structure that was the previous home for the university’s rare book and manuscript collection. Immediately west of the Beinecke is Yale Law School, which features a complex of Gothic buildings built with brick and limestone. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is not the only modern building on the Yale campus, but it is the most prominent and centrally located. The other modern buildings are located closer to the campus periphery. These include the Art and Architecture Building, designed by Paul Rudolph (who was the dean of the architecture school at the time) and completed in 1963, the same year as the Beinecke; the Yale Art Gallery, designed by Louis Kahn and built in 1953 (the building underwent a complete renovation in 2006 by Polshek Partnership Architects); and several buildings by Eero Saarinen, including Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges and the Ingalls Ice Rink.
Much of Yale’s collection of rare literature is very fragile. Though known for his glass-and-steel curtain wall designs, Bunshaft knew that windows would be a risky inclusion and necessitate careful design planning. The decision to grid the façade in large marble panes was borne out of the need for muted light that would not put the building’s contents at risk. Bunshaft initially planned for onyx panels but when not enough material could be located the choice was made to include Vermont marble, sliced into 1-1/4”-thick panels. Acknowledged marble-curtain-wall influences include the north-transept Portail des Libraries at the Rouen Cathedral, and the Tokapi Palace in Istanbul. The pin-joint columns and resulting circulation area give the illusion that the Beinecke is “floating,” implying that the structure is far less hefty than in reality.
The construction of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library marked a radical shift in architectural aesthetic of the Yale University campus. Whereas most of Yale’s buildings are styled in the collegiate Gothic formula of college campuses nationwide, the Beinecke is an exciting cubic surprise. Its benefactors sought to build a structure that befit its contents—something rare and special and wholly unique. In the landscape of the Yale campus, this goal was reached. In the context of the modern movement, this building exists as a successful example of blending new with old, and function with aesthetic.
Bunshaft is quoted as describing the building as the following: “What it is is a huge vault, a secure place with tremendous humidity and temperature control and stacking of books. In addition to that, there’s some offices for curators, there’s a reading room for a few scholars, and some exhibit space for little books and stuff.” This modest description of some of the building’s features shows that Bunshaft was mindful of the building’s intended function. Many of his design decisions were informed by this awareness; the marble panels (which were originally intended to be onyx but not enough material was available) were a substitute for windows, a complex design element that would protect the rare books from damaging sunlight while still allowing light to penetrate the interior. The enclosed glass tower in the interior’s core would allow for isolated temperature and humidity control where it was needed most. And the vast, six-story open interior space struck an immediate and profound impression on any first-time visitor: this was no ordinary building, just as its contents were similarly rare. Understandably, the library was met with equal favor and disdain. Time has won over the Beinecke’s critics, and today the library is one of Yale’s most beloved and iconic buildings.
In June, 1967 Skidmore, Owings & Merrill receive five AIA "Honor Awards" including one for Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (The other four SOM buildings out of 20 awards total include: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Kamuela, Hawaii; Vannevar Bush Center for Materials Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts; National Headquarters, American Republic Insurance Company, Des Moines, Iowa; and Office Building and Residence, Banque Lambert, Brussels, Belgium.) The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has become so loved by the Yale community that the university’s imprint published a book—The Beinecke Library of Yale University—in 2003 in honor of the library’s fortieth anniversary, filled with essay contributions from employees past and present.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is a shining architectural specimen of the modern movement. Bunshaft’s simple design shifted the aesthetic of Yale’s central corridor while also setting engineering precedents that went far beyond the campus confines. It was also a departure from Bunshaft’s glass curtain wall designs, effectively marking a new era of the architect’s work. It is a visually bold and architecturally important building that is well used, well-known, well cared for, all hallmarks of successful architecture.
Adams, Nicholas. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill : SOM Since 1936. New York: Phaidon Press, 2007, 1904313557.
Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1950–1962. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.
"The 1967 Honor Awards." AIA Journal 47 (1967): 44–64.
Parks, Steven (ed.) The Beinecke Library of Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, 0845731505.
Krinsky, Carol Herselle. Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 1988, 0262111306.
"Rare Book Library." Architecture International 1 (1965): 88–95.
"Rare Book Library at Yale Dedicated." Architectural Record 134 (1963): 12–13.
Reese, Ilse M., and James T. Burns Jr. "The Opposites: Expressionism and Formalism at Yale." Progressive Architecture 45 (1964): 130–33.
Rotella, Katie. "Radiant Innovations." Plumbing & Mechanical 23 (2005): 43+.
"Yale Rare Book and Manuscript Library." Progressive Architecture 45 (1964): 130–33.