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Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library turns 50

Gordon Bunshaft designed the Beinecke library.

BEINECKE DIGITAL STUDIO

Gordon Bunshaft designed the Beinecke library.

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.

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Inside the library’s protective outer shell is its treasure chest, a six-story glass tower holding 180,000 rare books. Bibliophiles will drool as they window-shop the antiquated bindings and leather-bound volumes. Although still “closed” stacks in the sense that they can only be accessed by staff, Bunshaft’s design twists the concept with his transparent bookcase. Below the surface are another 320,000 volumes, several million manuscripts, and a reading room with windows onto the sunken sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the library throughout 2013 is hosting a series of special events, including lectures, conferences, poetry readings, and concerts. In addition to the permanent displays of copies of Yale’s Gutenberg Bible and John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” the gallery is hosting yearlong exhibitions on the design and construction of the Beinecke Library along with profiles of some of the curators and librarians who have worked there.

The exhibition busts some of the popular myths that surround the library. It’s not true that the unusual exterior was intended to resemble an S&H Green Stamps booklet, a company in which the Beinecke family had a financial interest, or that the glass book tower can descend into the ground in the event of a nuclear attack. (This fortress of solitude lacks superhero powers.)

Among the artifacts on display is a letter from associate librarian Donald Wing who, upon seeing the building’s design, called it “a terrific white elephant” and “an architect’s dream and our future nightmare.” Those fears luckily never came to fruition, and on its golden anniversary, the Beinecke is now a Yale icon.

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Yale University, 121 Wall St., 203-432-2977, www.library.yale.edu/beinecke

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