Recasting Central Campus - Schwarzman Center takes shape

March 22, 2021

Since 2018, a large area of central campus has been undergoing a significant transformation that includes six major and minor projects. It encompasses the buildings and areas between Tower Parkway, College, Grove, and Wall Streets. Two of the larger projects include aggregating all of the Yale Humanities departments and programs into a single location (320 York Street) and rejuvenating the Commons Dining Hall (Commons) into a multi-purpose student venue ‑‑ the Yale Schwarzman Center (YSC). Connecting these two buildings is the landscape project and pedestrianization of High and Wall Streets, now named Alexander Walkway. Lastly, there are three smaller projects, including the exterior restoration of Woodbridge Hall, Woolsey Hall, and the rotunda dome.

This $340 million block investment supports the University’s goal of providing state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and learning and recasting this part of central campus. These projects are being successfully completed because of the teamwork between Yale Facilities Operations, Utilities, and Planning, working in partnership with Yale IT, Public Safety, and Hospitality.

This article is the first in a series of articles on these projects.

Part 1 – The Yale Schwarzman Center takes shape

 In the fall of 2014, three Yale student government groups issued a report to President Salovey stating the need for a “campus center that bridges the boundaries between undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students and encourages vibrant, significant and inclusive social interaction at Yale.” In 2015, Yale alumnus Stephen A. Schwarzman ‘69 B.A. donated $150 million to create a student center by renovating Commons and Memorial Hall. The YSC would be dedicated to cultural programming and student life.

Planning started in earnest, and in the spring of 2017, Commons was closed. By January 2018, construction began on the YSC enabling project. This included relocating two major utilities before the more extensive addition and renovation of the YSC could begin. A data center and high-voltage vault located under Commons were removed and replaced within the YSC. This move was completed without losing phone and internet service to 98 buildings supported by the data center. Over 21 miles of copper lines and fiber were replaced during this time. “The biggest challenge of this entire project was moving the data center, says Michael Douyard, Associate Director of Planning and Project Management. “It feeds many campus buildings, including the health center and public safety. We were doing all this building above it while it was operating.”

These relocations were completed successfully because of the close coordination between the building and operations managers of the Sterling Memorial Library, Sterling Law Building, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Woodbridge Hall, Woolsey Hall, and the YSC Team along with support from Yale Utilities and IT.

With that enabling project complete, construction of the YSC began in September 2018. This next phase included renovating Commons and the Memorial Hall rotunda. A new three-story 13,900 square foot addition on the Grove Street side, called the Annex, was built and now houses a new kitchen and food service area for Commons, student lounge and wellness center, conference rooms, and the YSC’s administrative offices. 

Commons now shines with a new terrazzo floor, restored wood panels, and trusses. Infrastructure improvements include extensive audio-visual (AV) equipment and technology upgrades, and improved acoustics. Also, all of its eight chandeliers were removed, thoroughly cleaned, and returned to their places. With the updated AV systems, Commons can now easily accommodate large and small events, screen projections, and musical groups. It will still be used as a dining hall, serving lunch Monday through Friday. Directly beneath it is The Underground, a new bistro and performance space that includes a stage and lounge—all built in space previously used for storage.

The Memorial Hall rotunda, built in 1901, now sits atop a new circular pub called The Well— that will serve beer, wine, cider, and kombucha. Visitors to The Well will notice its curved granite walls that are part of the Memorial Hall rotunda’s original foundation. Both The Underground and The Well are connected by a 13,000 square foot subterranean addition that is accessed from a new outdoor granite stairway leading to Hewitt Quadrangle. Besides providing egress to the pub and bistro, the underground addition houses a new Yale Hospitality grab-and-go eatery called The Bow Wow.

Part of this new subterranean space is directly under Hewitt Plaza, which was closed to public access during construction. To prepare for the new space, everything on the plaza had to be removed. This included hundreds of granite pavers, benches, trees, Alexander Calder’s sculpture Gallows and Lollipops, the World War I Memorial Cenotaph, and Ledyard Flagstaff. Next, a 30-foot deep, 60’ by 60’ wide excavation area was dug for the subterranean addition. This space was created to provide plaza access via the granite staircase to the YSC’s lower level where the grab-and-go, bistro and pub are located. The entire plaza will open by late spring of 2021—portions of it are currently open.“It was one of the first things we did and the last things we are finishing,” says Michael.

The last part of the project included the restoration of The Presidents’ Room on the second floor just above the Memorial Hall rotunda. Its plaster walls were redone, fire sprinklers added, and gorgeous original chandelier extensively cleaned, refurbished, and reinstalled. This room will continue to be used for dinners and receptions. Above that, Memorial Hall’s dome—once home to the Yale Banner yearbook—was also restored and reimagined as a performance space, complete with a sprung floor for dance events. Updates include new AV equipment and theatrical lighting.

Overall, handicap accessibility was increased with a new ramp, where stairs once were, through the Memorial Hall rotunda out to Hewitt Plaza. Also, elevators now travel from the basement to the dome room level.

The Schwarzman Center will officially open this fall. It can accommodate thousands of individuals simultaneously and be utilized by hundreds of Yale student organizations— undergraduate, graduate, and professional— who will have access to the center’s multi-purpose spaces. Its dining areas will welcome the entire campus with diverse food offerings that will be available late into the night.

“This was a jewel to build. It was unique once-in-a-lifetime project to work on,” adds Michael. “You have this beautiful 100-plus-year-old building that is being completely reimagined, adding high-performance AV and state-of-the-art kitchen facilities. While this is being done, Woolsey Hall is still open and active. There were also complex engineering challenges with the underground space and the installation of it. It has been an amazing experience.” Mike was the project manager of record for the YSC build.

Special thanks to staff members from:

  • Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
  • Berkeley College
  • Book and Snake tomb
  • Facilities Operations
  • Facilities Utilities
  • Office of New Haven Affairs
  • Scroll and Key tomb
  • Sterling Memorial Library
  • Sterling Law Building
  • Yale Institute of Sacred Music
  • Yale School of Music
  • Dimeo Construction Company
  • Robert A.M. Stern and Associates

By Lisa M. Maloney, Internal Communications, Office of Public Affairs