A rendering of Commons in the new Schwarzman Center, set to open in 2020.

During 2019 Yale College Reunion Weekends, Schwarzman Center Executive Director Garth Ross held a series of meetings with interested alumni to talk about the progress of the new center, the added amenities, and of course, the return of Commons.

For the second session, he was joined by project namesake Steve Schwarzman ’69, who was back on campus for his 50th reunion and spoke widely of how the project came to pass and his hopes for the future.

“This project started as a fundraising exercise by Peter Salovey who, like the job of presidents of universities, among other jobs, is to try to get money from alumni. I qualify,” said Schwarzman. “I wanted to do something that I thought would break down barriers for new Yale students and Yale students who were here. Peter Salovey thought doing something with Commons was a good idea, and it was something I wanted to do as well.”

One of the great revelations of the project was the large space underneath Commons, a basement the size of Commons that was being used for storage but had the capability of holding event space for a variety of events and programming. That would also open up space for other social possibilities, including a bistro and a bar.

“What was so exciting for me about this vision,” said Ross, who previously served as the vice president of community engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., “is an entire center that would deliberately use dining, social, and artistic activity as a way to bring this incredible community together at a time when there was a social entropy pulling it apart – separate groups and siloed subcommunities within the entirety of Yale. So that was an incredible opportunity and a challenge for me. And then not the least of which the bones of this building are extraordinary, and the university is amazing.”

Below are excerpts from the conversation between the alumni assembled for the meetings held during reunions and Ross and Schwarzman, edited for space and clarity.

Question: I’m intrigued to hear you dug down. How do you support a building when you’re digging away from its foundation?

Garth Ross: The foundation is, of course, around the perimeter, and there are also pylons in the middle. So, as they excavated, Step One was to tear out the entire floor; it was pretty incredible to see a massive backhoe inside Commons tearing the floor out. Once the floor was out, they started to dig down but around those pillars, and then they put new footings in around the pillars as they went down. So, they never cut down under any of the foundation; you go inside the perimeter foundation and then around those pylons. They were able to take a tremendous amount of sand and dirt out of there.

Q: Will the bar serve alcohol?

GR: It will. This will be the first bar that’s actually owned and operated by the university. The graduate and professional schools have a bar that’s been historically referred to as the GPSCY (Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale) and that’s actually run independently of the university and it’s run by the graduate students.

The reason why the decision was taken had a lot to do with what Steve was saying earlier on about this kind of social pulling-apart of the university. The students going off-campus to live, off-campus to socialize, in some cases to drink, was something that the university wanted to take affirmative and proactive steps around creating better options on campus. Now this is not so that under-21 students can drink on campus at Yale. But it is so that the Center – which is for the undergraduates, the graduate and professional and post-docs, the faculty and staff – that they will have access to socialize responsibly.

Q: Given the large, hard surfaces, are you doing some sound suppression to try to avoid all the reverberations that are going to happen when you put performances on?

GR: Yes, there is a lot of work being done on that. I’ll give you just two examples. One is in the Dome Room, all of the plaster in the renovation is this acoustical plaster that soaks up more sound than it bounces back. For example, in Commons itself, which has the incredibly reflective floor and brick walls, we will, at times, need to put batting – soft goods – up in the grid among the rafters to soak up some of that sound. We also have a sound configuration where there are essentially delay-speakers all the way down. So if you picture that image where it said “Jazz at Lincoln Center” – that nighttime image of Commons when there’s a show – rather than running the front-of-house sound super-loud to reach the back, it’s being run at a moderate level and then there are delay speakers all the way down that are perfectly digitally delayed.

Q: What is the timeline to completion?

GR: Fall of 2020 is our timeline for completion.

Q: When did you break ground?

Steve Schwarzman: We announced this in 2015. Breaking ground was, I think, two years later.  You’re usually three years to build one of these big university buildings: two years to do the plans and get local approvals. I mean, the Yale people are really good at doing this; this is not the first building they’ve ever built. [And] this is being virtually completely re-built. They have a great construction department, they have excellent relationships with the local community, and they have a real dedication to excellence. It’s a pleasure working with them.

Q: How is the university doing in keeping this on budget and on time?

SS: It will be on budget. Might be a month late. That’s my instinct.

GR: You’re correct. There was only one unexpected delay of any substance, which was finding that [a] data hub was there. So, there was that site remediation work in the beginning that set us a couple months back, and now we’ve actually caught up, so we are only about a month behind.

Q: I think the diversity of what you’re talking about bringing there – rock, a cappella, and everything – is fantastic. How is that going to be done? Does Yale have somebody who manages all that? And will you just sign independent contracts with the groups and you’ll have that authority so that it can be coordinated for such a variety of uses?

GR: I think the easiest way to look at it is that the total activity program here will be two sides of a coin. One side of the coin will be daily activity that’s driven by the students and that will be everything from unprogrammed things like dining and meetings of clubs to actual scheduled rehearsals, exhibitions, and performances that are totally student driven. And that kind of thing will be going on throughout all these spaces every day. And then, on a more occasional schedule, will be Schwarzman Center-produced events. They will tend toward the larger-scale ones – things, of course, that we’ll produce in the Commons but in other spaces as well, and all those, yes, we will be the contractor for.

Q: Is something going to be open until 2 o’clock in the morning? If you finish something at 2 o’clock in the morning, your options for food are exceptionally small.

Pericles Lewis, Yale Vice President for Global Strategy and Deputy Provost for International Affairs: From 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. we won’t have much going on in there. Students might be able to go and pick up something for an urgent need, but we really don’t want the kids staying up all night. Two a.m. on weekends, for sure, but on a Tuesday night, it’s unlikely we’re going to have a lot of people there.

SS: The objective is to keep this open as much as we practically can to meet normal-type of surge demands and have students know that there is someplace they can go. I think that’s the basic concept that we’re driving toward from the beginning.

Q: Can you talk about how you’re doing the mechanicals because they must be quite amazing: ventilation, heating, and so forth?

GR: I think one of the most interesting things on the mechanical side is actually a little more 21st century, which is the production and technical infrastructure. There is a network of connectivity throughout the building to allow for the digital experience of Schwarzman – essentially beaming in talent and artists and discussants as well as capturing and producing media that goes out to the world. We’re going to be able to do that from every space, not only the spectacular spaces like the Dome Room or Commons. Even those closed meeting rooms will be on that same exact grid network.

SS: The concept here from the beginning was to make this a global center. It will be here, but it will have the ability to connect everywhere.

Q: How much of a center welcome will there be for Yale students with kids?

GR: Because this center is explicitly for graduate, professional and postdocs, and faculty as well as the undergraduates, there will be programming for families. I’ll give you just one example. Among the opening events for Schwarzman Center in Fall of 2020, there’s going to be a Schwarzman Center Open House that’ll have performances and events in all the different spaces. And that will be programmed as an all-ages event, fully inclusive of families. But it won’t only be a one-time a year thing. That really will be part of the life of Schwarzman Center as well.

SS: Our job is to be flexible and meet the needs of the community. And, also, to the extent we can, dazzle them. You know, life should be a reach, and when I was an undergraduate, I didn’t have access to this type of thing. And why shouldn’t people now? The answer is: they should. This is going to be a fun project. It’s going to be great for Yale. And it’s going to enhance the life for the different constituencies without taking away from the remarkable things in the college system and the intimacy that Yale creates in other areas.

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