A radiant remembrance at Memorial Hall

December 17, 2021

The marble walls and bronze plaques of Memorial Hall are inscribed with the names of more than 1,000 Yale students, faculty, and alumni who died in conflicts spanning the American Revolution through the Vietnam War. The tablets that comprise this space were built in stages, and the names of the deceased were added as wars—and their toll—accumulated over decades. As did years of fumes from car exhaust and smoking tobacco, which slowly tarnished the materials, dulling the memorial’s initial glow. It was time for each name to be revived.

Located in the rotunda of a main entryway to Yale’s new Schwarzman Center, Memorial Hall was constructed along with Commons, Woolsey, and Woodbridge Halls in 1901 to commemorate the University’s bicentennial. In addition to commemorating the names of the deceased, Memorial Hall’s acknowledgement of those Yalies who served during past conflicts include their class year, military title, and the date and location of death.

Beginning in 2015, concurrent renovations to the building that now houses the Schwarzman Center enabled lighting and flooring improvements in this well-traveled space, which created an opportunity for conservation of Memorial Hall’s marble walls, twelve bronze plaques, and four carved sculptures that signify courage, devotion, memory, and peace.

The Office of Facilities engaged Materials Conservation Collaborative, Inc. (MCC), a Philadelphia-based company focused on this specialized work, to gently clean years of tarnish from the memorial’s surfaces. This conservation, done entirely by hand, covered approximately 3,000 square feet of soiled marble walls and sculpture.

Dan Clark, a conservation technician at MCC, performed much of the cleaning. “Marble is a porous stone, and these panels with their hand-honed surfaces are particularly susceptible to staining and the buildup of surface dirt,” he stated. “The memorial was designed to be subtle. The names are carved into the marble panels and intentionally left unpainted. Over the years, brown grime settled in the carved letters, increasing the contrast of the carving, and actually making the names more easily legible. To read the freshly cleaned names, you must inspect them closer, as was the original intention.”

The process to remove dirt, tape, adhesive, waxy residues, staining, and accidental paint and cleaner splattering took about five weeks to complete. It started with brushing and vacuuming, followed by cleaning surfaces with a gentle soapy solution—washing away the accumulation of grime. The two Revolutionary War walls are the oldest and were the dirtiest, requiring paper poultices to remove dirt from the carved names. The bronze plaques were cleaned and then waxed. Upon completion, the plaques’ marble frames revealed a delicate gold leafing hidden under an earthy tinge.

“When you do something like this, you don’t expect it to look brand new, but the change is remarkable,”  said Maggie McInnis, Senior Architect and Planner, Office of Facilities. “Sometimes history is thought of as a fixed occurrence in the past. The memorial plaques represent a cumulative history of added conflict events. They commemorate the people who died during these multiple conflicts.”

This revitalized memorial is a continuous reminder to the many students, community members, and visitors who pass through Hewitt Plaza of the immense sacrifice made by hundreds of Yale’s alumni.

In remembering all veterans, English poet Laurence Binyon (1869–1943) wrote the following prose in the early weeks of the First World War.

  They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
  Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
  At the going down of the sun and in the morning
  We will remember them.

Lisa M. Maloney, Internal Communcations, Office of Public Affairs