New Haven, Connecticut

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is a modernist masterpiece. Its rectangular volume is enclosed in sheets of marble, thin enough (at 13∕8") to transmit light. That means the interior of the building glows by day. But it also posed “a major challenge,” says Bill Mahalko, who, as project architect for Chicago’s HBRA Archi­tects, oversaw a 16-month, $70 million renovation of the building. New Haven’s Newman Architects was architect of record.

“The thermal qualities of the marble are similar to those of single-pane glass,” says Mahalko. “It’s not a good insulator.” In cold weather, condensation formed inside the building, which houses some of the world’s most precious volumes—including a Gutenberg Bible.

When the building reopens on Septem­­ber 6, it will look the same on the outside as it did when it was completed in 1963. But its mechanical systems have been entirely revamped, solving the condensation problem and many others. Bronze display cases on the main level were sealed and fitted with environmental controls. (Previously, ambient air passed right through the cases.)

The architects restored the library’s dramatic “book stack” (a six-story glass volume within the larger volume) and reconfigured the administrative spaces below the building’s plaza. An Isamu Noguchi sculpture garden, sunk into that plaza, has been returned to its original condition.

The building already contained two classrooms, below grade but visible from much of its interior. It now contains two more, designed by Mahalko to blend in with Bunshaft’s architecture. One of the classrooms houses an antique printing press and other equipment, allowing students to explore the physical properties of books.

HBRA was led for many years by Thomas Beeby (now the firm’s chairman emeritus), whose best-known building is the aggressively Postmodernist Harold Washington Library in Chicago. The firm’s ground-up projects generally hew to traditional styles, “but in the restoration area, we do a lot of modernist work,” Mahalko says.

The firm began working on the Beinecke library back when Beeby was dean of the Yale School of Architecture (1985 to 1991), completing a number of small projects culminating in the recent commission. Beinecke library director Edwin Schroeder said, “The renovation ensures that the Beinecke library will remain a world-class center for teaching, research, and scholarship for decades to come.”