Designed by James Gamble Rogers, the library was built to house 3.5 million volumes in a bookstack tower intended to be the dominating feature of the facade, something of an innovation for the time. The interior of the tower is a self-supporting, unified structure of steel fused together by an electric welding process which was new in 1928; this book tower was at the time the largest such welding project ever undertaken. Although technically seven stories high, the book tower actually contains sixteen levels of stacks. In the days when the new library building was largely surrounded by much smaller buildings, the sheer size of the tower stunned its viewers. The impression of the size was heightened still more by the semi-Gothic style of the tower, and its rather plain facade and elaborately crenellated battlements.
Attention to artistic detail pervades all of Sterling Memorial Library. As a general rule, the ornamentation of each library area was designed to be in harmony with the intended purpose of the room being decorated. A second floor room originally designated as the English Study has window decorations portraying King Lear, Hamlet, and Lady Macbeth; the offices of the Babylonian Collection were given windows bearing the human-headed winged bulls of Ninevah and the Babylonian lion. In larger areas, design schemes were even more elaborate. The entrance hall relates, in stone and stained glass, the history of the Yale Library. Carved stone panels below the windows represent such events as the meeting of the Branford ministers in 1701 to form a “college in the colonies”, the Saybrook plea for the retention of the library, and the British invasion of New Haven in 1779. The windows above the panels have decorated panes that interweave the story of Yale and New Haven; the windows show everything from a portrait of Elihu Yale to the ox carts that brought the books from Saybrook.
Throughout SML, in almost every available wood, stone, and plaster surface, is carved a design that will remind the viewer of the dignity and significance of learning in general and of libraries in particular. A visitor passing through the archway separating the nave from the exhibition corridor will walk beneath four quotations on the value of written knowledge. Above the circulation desk, field bosses on the ceiling represent various writing implements, from quill pen to typewriter keyboard; and a painting of Alma Mater on the backwall is surrounded by allegorical figures representing her academic schools. In the exhibition corridor, stone corbels picture scenes that include a fifteenth century scholar, a reader with a book and jug, and a student receiving his diploma. Countless windows throughout the building are glass representations of great literary works, such as Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In the original Rare Book Room (now Manuscripts and Archives), each decorative pane is a tale from Aesop’s Fables. The original Medical Study on the fifth floor has one window showing a witch shooting pain into a man’s foot, a picture copied from an illustration in a fifteenth century medical text. Even a custodial closet, just outside the renovated Starr Main Reference Room, is decorated with a mop, pail, broom, and brush.
The sculptor responsible for much of the stone carving within SML was Rene P. Chambellan. He drew his inspiration not only from well-known literary works but from their illustrations; from symbols of historic, philosophic, religious, or mythological significance; from nature; and from the heraldry of the University itself.
The library’s windows, with their tracery and leaded glass, were designed by G. Owen Bonawit. Like Chambellan, Bonawit received his ideas from the scholarly world around him. The decorative panes in his windows were inspired by book sources from around the world, many of which are now housed in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Even the most unexpected portions of SML have been adorned in the manner of a Gothic cathedral, but in this case to the greater glory of scholarship and the dignity of libraries. The iron doors of the public elevators were wrought by Samuel Yellin and represent Medicine, Law, Shipping, Manufacturing, Agriculture, Chemistry, Husbandry, and Machine Work. Yellin was also responsible for the ornamental iron gates that stand between the Wall Street entrance and the Exhibition Corridor. Many of the plaster ceilings are either painted or bordered with decorative friezes, and such decorative schemes do not cease in the areas of the building open to the public: the staff lounge has windows decorated with such characters as Jack Spratt and his wife and Jack Horner, and a staff restroom has windows made colorful by heraldic shields.
A detailed description of the building is contained in the Yale Library Gazette from April, 1931, when the library originally opened.
In brief, the ornamentation within Sterling Memorial Library is beautiful, detailed, all-pervading, and symbolic of the history and universality of the libraries of the world. This art work contributes much to the unification of form and function in a building that affirms the value of knowledge and scholarship at Yale, and the enduring nature of the written word.