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Preserving The Yale Center For British Art’s ‘Most Complex’ Masterpiece

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Yale Center for British Art
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One of America’s greatest modern architects, Louis Kahn, died in the middle of constructing his last building, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. Now, 40 years later, the Center has gone through a major restoration to bring the inside of the building closer to Kahn’s original design. It was unveiled to the public on Wednesday.

The Center spent more than $30 million perfecting the interior details. Jeanie Durie marvels at the bright skylights and steel walls lining the building’s courtyard. A tour guide tells Durie about the restored elevator buttons and reproductions of the original sleek brown chairs in the galleries.  

“Did you hear him say that this chair, I think it’s by Knoll,” Durie says, “went back into production to make them?”

Some other details of the building weren’t to Kahn’s specification because he died suddenly in 1974, just as construction reached the second floor. Jules Prown was the Center’s director at the time.

“When he died it really took a lot of the fun out of the building, because he was just great to be with.”

Another architect took over Kahn’s job. The Center had to make cuts to compensate for the cost of delays.

George Knight, the lead architect in the restoration, says linen wall panels were used instead of expensive oak in some rooms.

Knight says the team was renovating the study room where original drawings are held and they found something surprising.

“We had discovered a drawing that was produced by Louie Kahn’s office that had called for wood paneling on the upper levels of this double-height space that was never installed,” Knight says, “We all looked at this drawing and were electrified by the process of bringing that back.”

The study room is now paneled floor to ceiling with white oak.

Knight also transformed several small rooms back into Kahn’s original design for one long art gallery -- the kind in traditional English homes.

On the fourth floor, a tour guide leads Jeanie Durie to the Long Gallery. Durie had been coming here for years. She notices that there are more paintings are on display here than ever before.

“This is astounding!” Durie sees paintings cover the walls grouped by theme, instead of chronology. “Various artist and periods all mixed up!”

This restoration of the Yale Center for British art would not have happened without Amy Meyers, the museum’s director. She envisioned this more than a decade ago, when she took on the job.

“I realized that I was going to be responsible for one of the great monuments of 20th century architecture,” Meyers said.

 

The Center is home to the largest collection of British art outside of England, but Meyers considers the building itself to be the Center’s most important piece. She says the inside is complete, but the work isn’t done.

The Center will now look to the outside. They’ll clean rust that drips from the stainless steel exterior and buff up the concrete of Louis Kahn’s last building.

“That is the nature of conserving a great work of art,” Meyers said. “You never stop.”

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp will commemorate the reopening of the The Yale Center for British Art at Community Day on Saturday. Visitors are invited to join for special tours and performances.

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