NEW HAVEN — In 1963, Yale University opened the most modern of structures to house its most ancient of books. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library was an architectural incongruity amid the university’s traditional neo-Classical and neo-Gothic campus. Among Yale librarians, Gordon Bunshaft’s avant-garde design was about as popular as loud noises and gum-chewing patrons. They decried it as a “white elephant” and a “floating folly,” and the director even marked up postcards of the building to highlight perceived design flaws.
Fifty years later, however, the Beinecke Library is more beloved than reviled. From the outside, it resembles a giant wafer cookie with five rows of Vermont marble panes honeycombing the facade. The library’s windowless exterior, built to protect the books and manuscripts inside from damaging sunlight, hardly extends a welcoming invitation, but step inside and the true brilliance of the design is revealed. Those stark white panes of marble that appear so impenetrable outside are actually so thinly sliced that they are translucent and glow from the sun’s warming light.