That Weird Building on Side of Highway is Actually Famous and Now a Hotel

This is the latest in our series on exciting new hotels, Room Key.

The weekend trip is often a severely abridged meal, main dishes sheared of secondi or digestif. Or it’s a thin scaffolding for lazing–a series of amuse-bouches that don’t really fill you up but at least aren’t occurring on your couch. Occasionally you get a Goldilocks-perfect serving, in this case, in New Haven, a place that can fill a few days not with small city-scaled attractions but with big city ones, just about all within an easy stroll.

University towns beneath certain levels of NCAA renown (and even some of those) remain ideal for a certain mode of cheapskate, sure to deliver relative bargains in food, drink, books, and all sorts of items for gawking. It’s no surprise that Yale delivers intensely on the count of architecture. Its oldest buildings and the many neo-Gothic and quadrangles of James Gamble Rogers and other structures by Carrère and Hastings, Charles Klauder, and Richard Morris Hunt are second-to-none, and provide an excellent framework for atmospheric rambling.

These are on all of the postcards; New Haven also features a range of modern architecture that’s tremendous for a city of its size. Not one but two museums by Louis Kahn, one of the greatest modern libraries by Gordon Bunshaft, an ice rink and residential colleges by Eero Saarinen, multiple concrete joys by Paul Rudolph, and Marcel Breuer’s former Pirelli Tire Building, just returned to life as the Hotel Marcel. It’s a left turn from the Fitzgerald-like world of pennants and class ties.

You’ve seen the new hotel if you’ve ever driven on I-95 through New Haven; the concrete building that seems to have been built without its middle floors. It’s been vacant for over 20 years, partially demolished and ignominiously employed as scaffold for Ikea banners since–but to their credit the Swedes kept it intact. When a proposal for a hotel conversion emerged from architect-developer Bruce Becker they assented. It reopened in mid-May as a 165-room Hilton, titled Hotel Marcel.

The precast concrete panel facade continues to shine, straight on the front but slipping to diagonals on the side in spandrels, as well as panels in the cornice that provide a clue of just how this all stays up, with diagonals tracing some of the trusses that hold the cantilevered top.

“In a way it’s the building version of the Breuer chair; it has this gap and cantilever in the center,” Becker commented while giving me a tour.

The interior features Breuer’s Cesca chairs in each room and all sorts of actual Bauhaus or Bauhaus-spirited touches. Original granite pavers, terrazzo stair treads, steel railings, and oak handrails greet you on entrance; these details might not mean much to you but these materials look fantastic. It’s a very comfortable interior otherwise; you don’t have to sit on concrete for breakfast. There’s a little bit of unfortunate Hilton anonymizing; the original granite desk didn’t suit Hilton’s requirements (come on) but Becker moved it to another prominent lobby spot nearby. It was also admittedly a tire company office building so there was a fair amount of work to be done to bring it around to hotel use.


The lodging floors are very good. The rooms follow the logic of the window bays, with most spanning two or three bays, ending up as 10 or 15 feet wide. The carpets and other hallway elements accord with the geometry of the building, rational and enticing. The most impressive floor, the sixth, features rooms placed within the frame of original wooden executive office walls (much of the interior was long gone but these happily survived). You can stay in the boardroom, the President’s office, the Treasurer’s office, depending on what kind of executive you are.

Above that, the mechanical penthouse has no exterior windows, and won’t, but is being opened up to the sky, with meeting rooms carved around courtyards and views of the 50-ton diagonal trusses holding the building up.

Take the stairs as often as you can. These are glorious comprehensively original vestiges for formwork fanatics, shafts of board-formed concrete walls and terrazzo treads with oak railings and original light fixtures. Elevator cab interiors also replicate original tiled parquet paneling exceptionally well.

Art throughout, supervised by Becker’s wife Kraemer Sims Becker, is a strength. There are pieces by Bauhaus artist and instructor Gunta Stölzl. And a variety of artists, as Becker explained, “all with some connection to the Bauahus or to New Haven” from Howardena Pindel to Celia Johnson to Bob Gregson. The Cesca chairs are upholstered in patterns by Anni Albers. Becker effected a junction long after death, he explains, “They were together at the Bauhaus back in the ’30s and here they are reunited again”

With a room settled, what else to do?

We know that universities are economic incubators but their greatest utility might be in hosting architecture schools; when you want to build something the architects are right there, and in the case of Yale these were very good ones. Then-President Griswold commented, “A great university should look at architecture as a way of expressing itself. It can only do this by choosing to use the very best architects of its generation, men who see history as a continuous stream, not a stagnant pool.”


The city also went wild with rebuilding during the 1954-1970 mayoralty of Richard Lee, who recruited urban planning gadfly Ed Logue as Development Administrator, who in turn hired many of the same architects. They drank deeply from the federal trough, obtaining the highest per capita redevelopment grants of any city in the country, about $745 per capita. Some of this work was miserable. Some of it was great.

Louis Kahn, who was chief critic in architectural design at the Yale School of Architecture, built two museums for the university. Kahn’s addition to the existing art museum (a splendid Tuscan Romanesque palazzo by Egerton Swartout) may not make a great splash on the street level but does once you’re inside. A massive tetrahedral ceiling unites the collection, and, containing a very proficient lighting system, illuminates it as well. Rigid rectilinearity also receives a jostle in the form of a completely unnecessary and completely fun stair tower in a concrete cylinder running throughout the building.

The collection, as would befit the oldest university art gallery in the country, is voluminous, surpassing that of far larger cities. There’s everything you could want from Bosch sybarites to Gérôme gladiators to multiple Morisots and Monets; and Van Gogh’s Night Cafe is worth the stop alone. The design section is especially strong, with everything from Robert Venturi side chairs to a Wendy Maruyama Mickey Mouse-styled chair to ironwork from the Chicago stock exchange by Dankmar Adler.

A current exhibit on Mid Century Abstraction: a Closer Look focuses on the gradual-and-not-abrupt turn to abstraction of Rothko, Pollack, Krasner, Dehner, and more.

In most cases once you’ve seen one Kahn museum you need a plane ticket to see another. Here you just go across the street, to one of the greatest of his works, the Yale Center for British Art. The exterior is puzzling and arresting. Stainless steel panels, not windows, fill most concrete frames. The material contrast is arresting; Kahn observed “On a grey day it will look like a moth; on a sunny day like a butterfly.” Those steel panels also fulfill a very real practical purpose; museum curators are endlessly at war with excess natural light.

Enter for the real wonder; steel panels are replaced by much more comfortable white oak above the first floor in an atrium that offers the abstracted ambiance of a manor house. You enter another stair cylinder to ascend to another stately atrium. Here concrete frames oak again, and these frame a Reynolds Duchess, a Gainsborough coast, a Benjamin West naval battle. There’s one uncanny element: the cylindrical stair tower, which isn’t tucked out of sight but stands at one end of the hall like the 2001 Monolith. It defies both modern and manorial precedents, and is completely transfixing.

Most of the collection is displayed on the 4th floor, where there are many more fascinating material contrasts, between travertine and carpet floors, oak-framed linen movable walls, and much else. The manor house aura intensifies in a long gallery hung salon-style.

What’s in there? Well, the largest collection of British art outside of that country. Hogarth, Gainsborough, Millais, Whistler, crisp early and foggy late Turners, Canaletto London vedute, and Richard Parkes Bonington landscapes. You’ll be just fine.

Just a little down Chapel Street is Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building, a building that deliberately echoes the various neo-Gothic towers nearby, with corrugated concrete more rugged and window bays much more modern than its neighbors. The facade rhythm is complex and captivating. Vincent Scully, eminent Yale architectural historian wrote, “There his building stands, as indestructible as he could make it–a weathered mountain, an irredeemable ruin–one of the enduring monuments to the marvelous irrationality of art and to the blessed restlessness of the human spirit.”

While access to university buildings is more constrained than a flaneur would like, you can get inside to see the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, which houses an excellent exhibit, Italian Design 1965-1985, a collection of provocations from Italy. There’s assorted lunacy from Superstudio, A polyurethane chair in the form of an Ionic capital from studio 65, a Lapo Binazzi lamp spoofing the Paramount logo, a Fiat 600 door with walnut claw-footed frame, and other pieces from Gae Aulenti, Sottsass, and Memphis.

A short walk north through neo-gothic delights leads to another modernist landmark open to the public, the Beinecke Library, designed by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore Owings Merrill.

The exterior consists of marble panels held in place by precast blue-grey concrete panels over steel Vierendeel trusses. We’ve all seen marble before, it’s almost always opaque. When you enter you realize that this isn’t. Its 1-1/4-inch-thick marble slabs reveal ever-changing grain and light inside; a use of material without modern precedent, inspired allegedly by an alabaster wall in the Topkapi Palace. The shelves are all in the center, a tower of tomes within.

Nearby is another great exercise in rustication, a purposeful veer from modern glass and steel, Eero Saarinen’s Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges, a warren of buildings of poured concrete with rubble suspended within. The look is adobe-like, the feeling picturesque, accented by Constantino Nivola sandcast sculptures studded throughout.

Saarinen operated in a very different mode a bit to the north with his Ingalls rink, a massive parabolic arch that has drawn comparisons to overturned ships, a whale, and a turtle, and all of these comparisons work. He cantilevered a prow to the front, a sort of figurehead for hockey. Peer in the windows.

There’s much else around the way. Charles Klauder’s neo-Gothic Peabody Museum of Natural History is closed for renovations but check back later. Breuer’s Becton Center is another precast concrete delight. Philip Johnson’s Kline Science Tower is an unusual sort of skyscraper, brick-faced columns alternating with stone spandrels.

Enjoy the many mansions appropriated by the university on Hillhouse and Prospect Street. Rudolph’s Mansfield Street Apartments have an Italianate hill town quality, and check out his Greely Laboratory just to the side.

The “town” elements of architecture provide plenty of interest as well. Rudolph’s Temple Street Garage is one of the most famous parking structures in the world, which is saying a lot. It’s the rare, possibly only, garage worth going in for reasons other than leaving your car. Parabolic elements in concrete swell over in numerous spots. Boat-builders constructed the curving formwork. So much is excess to requirements.

Kevin Roche’s Knights of Columbus building is a very visible landmark. Roche cited four factory chimneys as an inspiration and suspended a building between them; this is just not how anyone designs skyscrapers.

One block over, the brutalist former New Haven Community Services Building by Orr, deCossey, Winder and Associates has been repurposed by the Knights of Columbus as a Pilgrimage Center. You can go in, and it contains elements of sure appeal to architectural pilgrims, with an exhibit on the construction of the Roche tower–and it’s worthwhile just to poke around the building itself.

On your way to Wooster Square, and New Haven pizza, there’s a fine concrete Fire Headquarters by Carlin and Millard. Other things around reward a look. Rudolph’s Crawford Towers with enticing balcony rhythm, a jocular Robert Venturi firehouse on Goffe Street, another concrete citadel, the Dixwell Congregational Church by John Johansen on Dixwell. You’ll also see the Cass Gilbert-designed library, and Henry Austin City Hall. There’s much else: The Ordinary, the ornate and wood-paneled former Taft Hotel (serving gin drinks far cheaper than you’d ever imagine), Grey Matter, that sort of used book shops half-filled with books you’ve never seen anywhere, and all sorts of dining. You will find better advice on these things elsewhere, but just a walk will deliver you across everything you could want from a weekend. That Weird Building on Side of Highway is Actually Famous and Now a Hotel


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