Light & Verity

$150 million gift for new student center

Commons and Memorial Hall will become the Schwarzman Center.

Christopher Williams Architects LLC/Gregorio Vasquez

Christopher Williams Architects LLC/Gregorio Vasquez

An artist’s rendering shows the Commons dining hall set up for a symposium as part of its transformation into the Schwarzman Center. View full image

When Yale built Commons, Memorial Hall, and Woolsey Hall in 1901 to celebrate its bicentennial, the buildings were more than responses to pressing needs. They were the first buildings to belong to the entire university rather than just the college or one of the graduate and professional schools—symbols of Yale’s evolution into a university.

So it’s perhaps fitting that some of these buildings will house a new entity that is intended to bring together people from all over the Yale community. The university announced in May that alumnus Stephen Schwarzman ’69 is donating $150 million to establish the Schwarzman Center, which Yale calls “a center dedicated to cultural programming and student life at the center of the university.” It is the second-largest dollar figure in Yale history for a single gift, behind Charles Johnson ’54’s $250 million for new residential colleges. (When inflation is taken into account, the gifts of John W. Sterling, Class of 1864, Paul Mellon ’29, and others were larger.)

The final plan for the center will be determined in consultation with an advisory committee of students, faculty, and staff, but some elements have already taken shape. The center will comprise Commons and Memorial Hall—the round, domed building that connects Commons to Woolsey Hall—both of which will be renovated. The great hall of Commons will continue to be used in part as a dining hall, but it will also be adaptable for performances and symposia. The large basement of Commons, which until recently held kitchens and food storage, will likely house a pub and café space. The upper floors of Memorial Hall will probably be remade for gallery space, meeting rooms, and performance space. (As for Woolsey Hall, the center may present events there, but the hall will not be renovated as part of the project.)

A New York Times story emphasized the Schwarzman Center’s role as a performing arts center. But in an interview with the Yale Alumni Magazine (see page 28), President Peter Salovey ’86PhD said the center would be both a performing arts center and “a gathering place. A place to eat. A place to relax and talk with friends. A place with all kinds of meetings and some very exciting events....The idea is that there’ll be activities throughout every day that draw students from around the campus.”

Although a campus-wide student center does not appear to have been one of the goals on the list kept by Yale’s fund-raising department, students have recently been lobbying for a central gathering place. Last year, the Graduate Student Assembly, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and the Yale College Council collaborated on a report to the administration citing the need for meeting rooms, centralized student services, study space, late-night dining, and a means for more interaction between undergrads and graduate and professional students.

“On a social level, we’ve been seeing a trend outward, an increase in movement toward fraternities and events off-campus,” says former YCC president Danny Avraham ’15. “There’s not really a space where students can come together and meet, especially if they want alcohol-free activities.”

Lauren Tilton ’16PhD, who wrote the student report, says she is cautiously optimistic about the plan. “The central location and the financial support leave a lot of room for a good student center.” Noting the dual emphasis on performing arts and a student hub, she says it seems as though there are “different visions for the center. The committee is going to have to negotiate this, and we want to make sure it has the resources a student center would have.”

Yale says the center, which will have a full-time director and an endowment from Schwarzman’s gift to help fund its operation, will be completed in 2020.

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