Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ghost Town

On Wednesday, I jumped in the car and took what will soon become an all too familiar 7 mile drive along I-95 to YPM’s West Campus facility. With me was Marilyn Fox, the Peabody’s vertebrate paleontology preparator. She and I had decided that we would make the effort to schedule one of this trips at least once a week for the next couple of months as we get to grips with the move of a significant chunk of our collections and fossil preparation activities to West Campus.

First, a little background. Yale’s West Campus started life as the Bayer HealthCare complex, a 136 acre research and manufacturing “campus” owned by Bayer Healthcare AG that straddled the boundary between the towns of West Haven and Orange (strictly speaking, you could say it started life as a pig farm, because that was what was on the site when it was first purchased by Miles Laboratories in 1965). By the beginning of the 21st Century it had become Bayer’s largest site in the USA and the corporate headquarters for North America. While its research labs did groundbreaking biomedical research, the manufacturing plant was soothing the troubled gastric tract of America by the production of billions of Alka-Seltzer tablets, and frantically churning out Cipro tablets in response to the 2001 Anthrax scare.

Then in 2006, as part of a corporate restructuring, Bayer announced that it was closing the HealthCare complex. In 2007, Yale announced the acquisition of the site for the knockdown price of $109 million. For this, they got 17 buildings (built between 1968 and 2002); 550,000 square feet of lab space; 275,000 square feet of offices; and 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse facilities. To put this in perspective, the lab space buildings alone would have cost around $385 million to build from scratch. Add in everything else and the market value of the property is around 5 or 6 times what Yale actually paid for it. To call it a bargain is an understatement (for more detail on the acquisition and Yale’s plans for the site, read Marc Wortman’s excellent article in the Spring 2008 edition of Yale Medicine)

Understandably, most of Yale’s PR to date has focused on the opportunities for expanding the University’s biomedical research programs. However, it was clear from the outset that the manufacturing and warehouse facilities might provide opportunities to alleviate space issues for the various libraries and museums at the central New Haven site. As I discussed in an earlier posting, collections have a seemingly limitless appetite for space. And these are not just any old warehouse buildings that we are talking about. The manufacture and storage of pharmaceuticals demands precise and rigorous environmental control – much better control, in fact, than most museums are capable of maintaining.

The Peabody’s need for space is especially acute because two ongoing projects – the renovation of the basement of the Klein Geological Laboratory and the demolition of 175 Whitney Avenue to make way for a new School of Management building – have displaced a large fraction of the YPM collections, including anthropology, historical scientific instruments, vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, vertebrate and invertebrate zoology, entomology, and the Museum’s archives. These collections and some of their staff need to be temporarily housed somewhere else, although “temporarily” is likely to be at least 3-5 years, or possibly longer. Yale’s acquisition of West Campus has provided a timely solution to this problem. I’ll leave discussions of the pros and cons of offsite storage for a later blog, but for now, let me give you a sense of the somewhat eerie experience of visiting the YPM facility at West Campus.

After driving through an innocuous mix of strip malls and industrial buildings that straggles alongside I-95 in West Haven, you arrive at a heavily armored set of gates. A very discrete sign announces that you have arrived at Yale West Campus. There is a guardhouse, complete with smoked glass windows; it’s not inhabited, but throughout your time at West Campus your presence and activities are being monitored on a set of enormous plasma screens in the main security control room. Waving your ID badge in front of a sensor causes the gate to slide slowly open. The old manufacturing building is directly ahead, a massive grey concrete and steel monolith, most of which is windowless. It is surrounded by parking lots for several hundred cars, but today there are no more than five or six parked there. Yale is gradually moving staff out to West Campus, but at the moment there are unlikely to be more than a hundred people across the whole complex.

Entry to the YPM facilities is via a completely anonymous lobby. There is a small table, a telephone, a TV (turned off), and a couple of chairs, but nothing to identify it as a museum facility. Across the lobby a pair of glass doors, accessed via another card reader, gives access to a vast labyrinth of almost identical corridors. The layout conforms to some long-lost set of Bayer operational guidelines. Corridors run parallel to each other – some have locked doors, others do not. Sometimes the doors open automatically when you swipe your card; in other cases, you have to open them by hand. In some areas, the doors will not open if you are wearing gloves – sensors respond to bare skin and unlock the doors on contact.

Opening off the corridors are rooms of varying sizes. In some cases the function is clear – offices, conference rooms, or a kitchen. Others are baffling – what was the purpose of the room known as “the arrival hall,” a football field-sized space whose nether reaches disappear into darkness? Or the chutes that descend from the ceiling in another room? VP’s work area consists of rooms sealed by the infamous “Star Trek” doors – toughened blue vinyl seals that fly apart with an explosive “whoosh” when activated (they fly closed equally quickly and it can be a little tricky to locate the “open” switch, as our facilities manager discovered the other day). The rooms themselves have toughened plastic windows, double-glazed and flush with the walls. If you have an overactive imagination, like me, it’s easy to envisage some white-coated minion pounding ineffectually on them before being overcome by the lethal virus/gas/nano-bot that is filling the room. We haven’t yet figured out what Bayer was doing with these rooms and perhaps (given the whole Cipro/anthrax thing) it’s better that we don’t.

To a collection manager who spent the last 10 years working around the logistics of a central Manhattan location, there are things about the West Campus facility that are jaw dropping. At AMNH, we couldn’t get an 18-wheel truck anywhere near our sole loading dock (which opened into the mailroom). When we had big deliveries, we had to unload in the street. At the West Campus building there are 8 loading docks, each of which can take an 18-wheeler, plus one dock whose sole purpose is trash disposal. Want a walk-in freezer for pest control? West Campus has one that could hold a whole 18-wheeler, plus a freezer truck parked at one of the docks for the duration of the move. Not ready to install those new cabinets, or not sure what to do with the enormous delivery of specimen trays or Ethafoam you ordered? Why not stash them in the Peabody’s warehouse facility? With floor-to-ceiling, 20 foot pallet racking there’s plenty of space. And Bayer kindly left all of their material handling equipment, so we now have a fleet of forklifts, powered and hand-operated pallet jacks, and other toys at our disposal. It’s like a crazy IKEA for collection managers.

The building is huge and YPM occupies only a small portion of it; although the remaining space has all been allocated to other Yale libraries, archives, and museums much of it has yet to be claimed. Walk away from the inhabited portions and you rapidly find yourself in what feels like a post-apocalyptic world. Bayer’s staff literally walked off the job in 2007, leaving almost everything behind them. It’s almost as if they got pulled away in the Rapture (although fortunately they didn’t leave their clothes behind in people-shaped piles). There are certainly other people around – security guards, architects, custodial staff, estate management staff, and other museum people, but scattered across a building of this size the only evidence of them may be a distant figure crossing a long corridor or the faint sound of a door closing.

Hopefully the photographs on this page will give you some flavor of the West Campus experience. If you want to get a better feel for the move and what it’s actually like to work there, I highly recommend Beyond the Basement, an excellent blog by my colleague Shae Trewin. Shae is the collection manager for Historical Scientific Instruments and was one of the first YPM staff to move into West Campus – her various trials, tribulations, and triumphs will be familiar to all of us in a few months’ time. On Wednesday, Marilyn and I ceremonially rolled a couple of fossilized reptile trackways into their new storage location in West Campus. Many will follow.

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