A hidden gem moves west
When walking along York Street, between Chapel and Crown, one might easily miss an unassuming two-story structure, labelled in silver lettering on its awning as “149 York.” One of Yale’s standard blue square plaques, which simply restates the building’s address, marks the structure as part of the stretch of campus buildings running down York toward the School of Medicine.
The ambiguous signage is fitting. The building lacks a single distinct purpose and is home to School of Drama offices and rehearsal rooms, the Yale Alumni Magazine and the Yale University Art Gallery’s Furniture Study, which contains much of the YUAG’s American furniture collection, comprising about 1,100 examples of furniture from the 17th century to the 21st.
For almost 60 years, rows of furniture including clocks, card tables, chests and chairs have lined the aisles of the York Street basement space. The facility welcomes students, scholars, professors and furniture makers, and hosts hourlong public tours every Friday afternoon.
The Furniture Study is not a museum, though — it is designed to store objects, and it lacks the sleek finish of a gallery display. Still, despite the thrum of the HVAC system, the collection seems meant for sharing with visitors.
“The Furniture Study has always been in a liminal state between storage and gallery space,” said John Stuart Gordon, the YUAG’s Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts.
The Furniture Study’s proximity to the YUAG means groups can gather in the museum lobby before proceeding up York for tours. Its central location, within walking distance of the residential colleges, allows professors to hold classes there. Although it resides just half a block from the YUAG, Gordon said, the Furniture Study is often referred to as a “hidden gem” of Yale’s campus.
But in early June, this hidden gem is moving west.
The final Friday public tour will run on June 8. After that, YUAG art handlers will begin the arduous process of packing up the furniture and safely transporting it to its new home, West Campus, the 136-acre former property of Bayer Pharmaceuticals, located about seven miles away from the center of Yale’s campus and mostly devoted to scientific research.
Located just off Route 95, West Campus is accessible from downtown New Haven only by car, limiting students’ access. Yet the Furniture Study’s new, specially designed home at West Campus has its advantages. Set to reopen before the 2019 Commencement, the facility, which is currently under construction, will offer increased space and museum-quality conditions — both of which 149 York St. lacks.
“The biggest concern,” said the YUAG’s Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, Patricia Kane, “is how to get Yale students out there.”
York Street’s underused gem
The edifice in which the Furniture Study currently resides began its life as an industrial bakery and later became a Yale building, housing the Yale University Press. When, in the 1950s, the space became the Furniture Study, the heart of the YUAG’s collection of American furniture found a home.
In the 1930s, class of 1897 graduate Francis Garvan donated thousands of objects to the YUAG. The collection is known as the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, named in honor of Garvan’s wife to commemorate the couple’s 20th anniversary. Before the collection moved to 149 York St., the objects were dispersed among Yale and historic homes and museums along the East Coast. In the 1950s, Mabel decided the collection should return to Yale to be studied, and the objects reconvened, in the basement of 149 York St.
The Mabel Brady Garvan Collection includes not only furniture but also other objects, spanning various media including silver, mostly from the colonial and early Federal periods.
“Garvan was a voracious collector,” Kane said. “He collected in a wide variety of media, and having that collection here has attracted other collections over time.”
Garvan’s substantial donation boosted the YUAG’s collection in American decorative arts, but, due to the size of the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, the gallery cannot display it all at once — particularly the furniture, which quickly consumes limited gallery space. The Furniture Study serves as a way for visitors to see and interact with the YUAG’s extensive American furniture holdings, beyond what fits in the gallery.
For about 10 years, the Furniture Study has offered its Friday tours, which have played a crucial role in exposing one of Yale’s lesser-known resources, Gordon said. Tours are led by Caryne Eskridge, the Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Decorative Arts, and Museum Assistant in American Decorative Arts, Eric Litke. For an hour, visitors have the opportunity to learn about select objects in the collection in an informal setting.
“My goal is to make the tour a conversation rather than just me talking,” Eskridge said during a recent tour. In the first aisle of the Furniture Study, opposite a queue of clocks reaching toward the low ceiling, Eskridge paused at a mahogany card table. Similar Federal period card tables surround the mahogany piece, many of which appeared in a YUAG exhibition in the 1980s, titled “The Work of Many Hands: Card Tables in Federal America, 1790–1820.” On her tour, Eskridge discussed how playing cards at tables like the one beside her was popular among the era’s elites, and she explained some of the methods used to achieve the ornamental contrast of woods on the table’s surface.
Eskridge emphasized the importance of having the Furniture Study open to the public. Through the Friday tours, she hopes to allow the public to have an “engaged experience” with the objects.
“I hope that [tour attendees] are able to feel like they’ve looked at objects in a new way, or maybe seen a type of object they’ve never looked at or thought about before,” she said. “I also hope they make connections to objects they’ve seen or interacted with.”
In addition to the weekly tours, the Furniture Study opens its doors to scholars studying individual objects. It also welcomes furniture makers aiming to closely examine historical methods of construction or to replicate or learn from objects in the collection.
Many of the Furniture Study’s visitors are Yale students.
Art history professor Edward Cooke Jr. teaches several courses that use the Furniture Study as a crucial resource. In the past, Cooke has taught a first-year seminar, titled “Furniture and American Life,” which he designed around the idea of using the Furniture Study as a classroom. Students in the course spend two sections per week in the Furniture Study, as well as time on their own examining objects and preparing presentations.
Through this deep engagement with the Furniture Study, Cooke said, students became “possessive of the space,” adding that they often come away from the class with a new appreciation for the extent of Yale’s resources.
“There is something about that space that is evocative, suggestive and inspirational,” he said.
Aside from the seminar, Cooke also teaches a lecture course on decorative arts in a global context. Students in the class spend one section per semester in the Furniture Study, during the class’s week focusing on materials, techniques and decoration methods associated with the medium of wood.
Xander Mitchell ’19, an art history major currently enrolled in Cooke’s decorative arts lecture, described the Furniture Study as “one of the underused gems of Yale.” Mitchell said that when he visited the Furniture Study for the first time, the disassembled pieces of furniture stood out to him: they showed off the methods of shaping wood and joining pieces together in a way that brought to life the concepts he had studied in the class.
Cooke emphasized that seeing objects in person is crucial to the courses he teaches.
“The Furniture Study has been one of those ideal classrooms because so much of what I teach involves human interaction,” he said. “A slide, or two-dimensional representation doesn’t give the idea of how one physically relates to [the object].”
Cooke likened using the Furniture Study to finding books in a library. A digital search might lead to a particular title and its location, he explained, but, when one locates a book in a library, one can also browse the shelves and find other relevant books in the vicinity. The organization of the Furniture Study, Cooke said, lends itself to similar connections.
“Spontaneity becomes a real key part of that teaching,” he said.
Other departments also make use of the Furniture Study for teaching. Craig Brodersen, assistant professor of plant physiological ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said that when he teaches a class titled “Trees: Environmental Biology,” he brings groups of students to the Furniture Study during the portion of the course that focuses on the societal and cultural significance of wood and tree products. According to Brodersen, bringing students into the Furniture Study gives them a more vivid experience than simply looking at a slide.
The diverse community that uses the Furniture Study — students, scholars, professors, furniture makers and the public — benefit in part from the Furniture Study’s proximity to Yale’s campus and its location in downtown New Haven, near the YUAG.
Getting out of the building
Despite its prime real estate, the facility at 149 York St. is not what it could be.
For one thing, Kane explained, the building cannot be climatized to museum standards due to its age. Though wood is sturdy, Gordon said, it prefers stasis to swings in temperature or humidity. Sometimes, he said, the hazards can be more direct: the Furniture Study has experienced bursting pipes or collapsing ceiling radiators.
“We have updated and fool-proofed that building as much as humanly possible,” he said. “Still, the reality is that we are in the basement of an old industrial building.”
In the 1980s, the space experienced a major flood, Gordon said. The tide lines still run along the walls, four or five inches up from the floor. Since the incident, the objects have sat on pallets, which Gordon said provide a “three-inch head start” on future flooding.
Cooke, too, remembers a flood when he was working in the Furniture Study as a student.
“A radiator pipe burst, and we were hauling things up to higher ground,” he recalled.
But going forward, Kane said, avoiding future water damage would be impossible: For the area of New Haven where the Furniture Study is located, flooding has been “a persistent problem.”
“This is not to say that there won’t be leaks and problems in the new building,” Gordon said. “But we’ve had the opportunity to build in safeguards.”
The new accommodations on West Campus feature museum-quality conditions. Soon, the collection housed in the Furniture Study will live in constant humidity and climate, in a space equipped with fire suppression and water damage prevention.
According to Litke, the move to West Campus is “an unqualified improvement” from the facilities standpoint. Litke added that the YUAG’s registrars, who are responsible for the safety of the museum’s art, are “thrilled to see [the Furniture Study] get out of this basement.”
“We’ve been dealing with 30 years worth of issues, and each has been significant,” Gordon said. “We don’t want to repeat them.”
The Furniture Study move has been in the works for about five years now, helped along by a donation from Leslie and George Hume ’69, for whom the new “American Furniture Study Center” will be named. As a Yale student, the Humes’ daughter was exposed to the Furniture Study through one of Cooke’s classes.
The planning process began after the YUAG reopened following its major renovation of the main Chapel Street gallery space. After the Dec. 12, 2012 completion of the renovation, the YUAG could shift focus to West Campus.
The new Furniture Study will be about 8,000 square feet larger than the current space, with two levels and higher ceilings to accommodate the collection’s largest objects, which are currently stored in Hamden, as they are too tall for the low ceilings at 149 York St.
With the increased space, the new Furniture Study will have individual pallets for each object, allowing visitors to more easily view the furniture from all sides.
The extra space also means the Furniture Study will have room for seminars and displays to guide visitors through more technical aspects of furniture-making.
“Teaching will be at the forefront,” Gordon said.
Yet the move to West Campus offers more than increased space and improved facilities. In its new home, the Furniture Study will fit into a community of spaces dedicated to diverse museum-related functions.
The Furniture Study will not be the only YUAG facility at West Campus. It will join the Margaret and C. Angus Wurtele ’56 Study Center, a recently opened study center housing small, three-dimensional objects, movable by one person. Previously, these objects were held in the Library Shelving Facility in Hamden. The Wurtele Study Center gathers these objects together, in open storage easily accessible by the curators.
“For the curators, the cases are designed so you have immediate access to your collection,” Kane said.
In addition to the Wurtele Study Center, West Campus is home to a digitization lab and a conservation treatment lab that serves the YUAG, the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Kane described West Campus, with its confluence of YUAG services, as a place “where all the functions of the gallery come together.”
When visiting West Campus, she said, she finds herself in the midst of a massive community of new ideas: She has attended seminars on scientific techniques and has learned from the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, also housed at West Campus.
“Having the Furniture Study within this nexus of other collections facilities is really the big plus,” Kane said.
Challenges of accessibility
The Wurtele Study Center at West Campus is accessible only on guided visits by appointment and does not hold public tours as the Furniture Study at 149 York St. does. Though Gordon said scheduling an appointment is not difficult, the new Furniture Study will likely enforce similar security measures.
“We have the reality of today, and the vision of trying to make sure that what we build could be open access,” Gordon said. “The Wurtele Center is a study center, but it looks a lot like storage.”
Kane referred to West Campus as a “whole concept,” with enough integrity, she hopes, to draw the most dedicated and interested students to the facility despite its distance from the center of Yale’s campus.
“For all of our projects on West Campus, the idea has been to build something so spectacular it will draw people in,” Gordon said, noting that the time and money spent on these West Campus facilities were aimed to create spaces that are “both functional and also attractive.”
Despite the pull of high-class facilities, the distance to West Campus, compared with the closeness of 149 York St., remains a drawback. For Eskridge, the move is a tradeoff, sacrificing proximity and accessibility for a higher-quality space.
“The question is, will the public still come,” Kane said.
She noted that members of the public with cars might be able to drive to the Furniture Study and continue to attend the public tours. In fact, she said, the new location might actually prove a benefit for commuters, since West Campus is equipped with convenient parking lots and highway access.
But car-related concerns apply to only a certain subset of the Furniture Study’s usual visitors. Yale students, very few of whom have cars on campus, will have a more difficult time accessing West Campus’ resources.
Gordon acknowledged that challenge, and he and Cooke both noted that undergraduates’ packed schedules don’t leave much time for travel time back and forth from West Campus.
Currently, Cooke co-teaches a graduate course, “Lacquer in a World Context,” with Denise Leidy, a curator of Asian Art at the YUAG, at West Campus. To make sure all the students could attend class, Cooke and Leidy scheduled meetings for Friday afternoons.
Still, the logistics of transportation remain a challenge for Cooke’s graduate class, and he said that scheduling classes for undergraduates would be even more difficult.
“We’re looking at a two-and-a-half-hour time slot,” he said. “And how many undergraduates have the luxury of two and a half hours in the middle of the day?”
With the Furniture Study moving to West Campus, he said, he does not think he will be able to teach his first-year seminar, since the curriculum relies heavily on spending time there.
Cooke sees undergraduates — with their low time flexibility and limited transportation options — as the group most affected by the Furniture Study’s location change.
“The main beneficiaries of everything are the graduate students, the museum staff, the scholars from outside,” he said. “At West Campus, they will have the ability to see a lot very easily.”
Both Cooke and Gordon emphasized the importance of dependable Yale Shuttle routes to allow for improved transportation between downtown New Haven and West Campus.
Meghan Dahlmeyer, the West Campus director of finance and administration, noted that in the past year, the West Campus shuttle route added a stop at the corner of York and George streets to service the YUAG. Yet Gordon called for an even more direct and frequent shuttle route to accommodate students’ needs, noting that shuttle trips can take up to 45 minutes, and are dedicated to the sciences, which he described as the “most visible occupants” of West Campus.
“The question is, can we be smart and strategic about how to incorporate West Campus as a resource,” Cooke said.
For many people who are familiar with the Furniture Study, Gordon stressed, it comes as a surprise that the Friday tours tradition began just 10 years ago. Perhaps, trips to the Furniture Study’s new location at West Campus can become a tradition in similarly short order.
“It doesn’t take long to make new traditions at Yale,” Gordon said.
Julia Carabatsos | email@example.com