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An Unofficial Tour Of Yale

May 2024
16min read

A guide who has been taking it all in for sixty years leads us on a lively, intimate, and idiosyncratic ramble through quiet yards where students once argued about separating from the Crown and to hidden carvings high on the Gothic towers that show scholars sleeping through class and getting drunk on beer

"That building on the left,” said the tour guide, “is William L. Harkness Hall. It was given by Mr. Harkness in 1926 and completed in 1927. It is built of Aquia sandstone with Ohio sandstone trim. It has a lecture hall seating two hundred and forty-nine persons. It has classrooms and faculty offices. Shall we move on?”

I was kibitzing, shamelessly. It was a hot July morning. Some twenty tourists were being introduced to the glories and mysteries of Yale. Traffic was busy on College Street, and I doubt if they heard more than half of what was said. The guide had studied his lesson, all right, but it seemed to me that he grossly overestimated the interest of his audience in sandstone.


I thought for a moment about what that building meant to me. Many, many years ago I had learned in it what you could do—and what you couldn’t—with a class of sleepy freshmen. I had seen Professor William Lyon Phelps pass by my door on the way to his office morning after morning. During the war years I had shared my office there with Eugene O’Neill, Jr., and listened awe-struck as he pumped Greek into five 4-Fs. It was there that my department chairman had told me I was fired. It was there that months later he told me I wasn’t. That building was a vital chapter in my career.

But how could even the best-instructed tour guide look at Harkness Hall as I did? It takes a lot of living to make a house a home—and a university more than a conglomeration of handsome buildings and well-kept lawns. So when American Heritage offered me the chance to see what I could do on paper (free from noisy traffic and July heat), I said yes.

There’s an old saying, bristling with bias: “Harvard has the students, Yale has the faculty, Princeton has the campus.” Objections thunder in. Students? Yale and Princeton do very well, thank you. Faculty? Eras come and go; departments rise and fall—a tossup. Campus? How about the stately Harvard Yard and the lovely sweep of the Charles River? But for beauty, it’s Princeton surely. By comparison, Yale has no campus at all, just a series of enclosures. It lives, as someone said, “in moated inwardness”—indeed, some fifteen inwardnesses and at least nine moats, surely enough to warrant the metaphor.

Ah, but those inwardnesses. It is these we must explore on this unofficial tour, and my biased opinion is that you will not meet, this side of England’s Oxford University, with any greater diversity, more interesting paradoxes, curiosities, eccentricities, and charm than right here in this traffic-bedeviled university (that last being a condition it shares, incidentally, with Oxford itself). A very human university, set in the thick of things.

So thick, indeed, that when I struck it in 1929, fresh from Williams, a country college in the beautiful Berkshires, it was a shock. The Ph.D. grind I’d got myself in for allowed little time for the fascinations listed above; one looked neither to the right nor to the left. It took me another four years to warm to the place. Add another five, and I began to feel at home; those inwardnesses aren’t penetrated easily. And now, after forty-three years of teaching, part-time deaning, full-time mastering at Ezra Stiles College, and fourteen years of retirement to think it all over, my loyalty is complete.

Yale has no campus at all, just a series of enclosures. It lives, as someone said, “in moated inwardness.”

By this time you’d think I’d know all about it. I don’t. I’m still running into wonders I never knew were there. Only two years ago I discovered the magnificent Medical School Library. There are splendid collections I’ve only nodded to: the Yale Center for British Art, the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection of American painting and decorative arts, the Musical Instruments Collection, and the wonders of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (which must be seen from the inside, preferably on a sunny day, to bring out the effect of the translucent marble facing). We’ll touch on some of this but far from all. Remember, I’m a bit of a tourist myself.

Our tour begins where all tours begin, official and unofficial, at the Phelps Archway on College Street, midway between Elm and Chapel. Take a good look outward at the Green, the pride of New Haven, before we enter the Old Campus. Take a look, too, at those gates at each end of the archway, necessary, on occasion, to preserve inwardness. May Day 1970—when nine Black Panthers were on trial in New Haven—was thought to be one such occasion. Twenty thousand “dissidents” were expected to rally on the Green, surely the makings of a mob. Furious debate: Close those gates or leave them open? Answer: The gates were left open and, although fifteen thousand demonstrators attended, there was no violence. Post hoc or propter hoc? I like to think it was a victory for humanity.

Now pass through the gates into the Old Campus. It’s summer. This is where Yale began, but it took some time getting here. It all started in 1701 in Saybrook, Connecticut, where a group of Congregational clergymen met to discuss the founding of a school. Nine of the ten founders had gone to Harvard, and they felt the need of an institution of higher learning more firmly orthodox than the liberalism they had met with there. The Collegiate School opened the next year with one student, in Killingworth, Connecticut; moved to Saybrook in 1707; and, after fierce competition from other towns, settled for New Haven in 1716. The first building, College House (where Bingham Hall, the corner building on your left, now is), was started in 1717. Funds ran short before it was completed, but a certain Elihu Yale, an officer of the British East India Company, came to the rescue. He gave the college nine bales of goods, which included 417 books and a portrait of King George I. The grateful trustees thought of a new name.

In 1718 Elihu Yale donated nine bales of goods, including a portrait of King George I, and the college renamed itself.

The first of those two red-brick, quaint-looking buildings on your left, Connecticut Hall, is the oldest Yale building still standing, completed in 1753. Formerly a dormitory, it now houses the Department of Philosophy and various literary projects. The top floor has long since been cleared of student rooms for use as a meeting place for the Yale College faculty. Up there on quiet Thursday afternoons I can still hear the precise reasonings of Professor Pierson, the Gallic witticisms of Professor Peyre, and, as I did for twenty-five blessed years, the measured good sense of Dean DeVane. Yale has had many voices.

McClellan Hall beside it, its twin, is a rank newcomer, built in 1925 to keep Connecticut Hall company. The architect who designed the present layout of the Old Campus thought that a single Georgian building in such a vast expanse would unbalance the effect. (The students had a field day. Ringing a change on the college motto, one sign read, FOR GOD, FOR COUNTRY, AND FOR SYMMETRY.)


The statue of the handsome young man standing in front of Connecticut Hall and purporting to be Nathan Hale is not. No likeness of Hale could be found, so a young undergraduate was called in to pose. Nor is the inscription engraved on the pedestal all Hale’s: “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” is a loose rendering of two lines from Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713), act I, scene iv. (At least young Hale had studied his lesson.) Of the three statues in the Old Campus only one is an authentic portrait: Theodore Dwight Woolsey, president of Yale from 1846 to 1871. There is a legend that Edwin Booth, the actor and Yale graduate, posed for the effigy of Abraham Pierson, Yale’s first president. Never mind. All three still send their message: Yale’s rich, sometimes heroic past.

In the northwest corner of the Old Campus, a fourth memorial brings us to Yale’s rich, sometimes heroic present. A bench carved from a massive piece of marble, it is a 1989 gift of the class of 1960 in memory of A. Bartlett Giamatti, ’6O, president of Yale, 1978 to 1986. An inscription reads: “A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching.” Every word is Giamatti’s.

Memories cling to almost every building that encloses the Old Campus. I remember that cluster beginning at the southwest corner (lining High Street from Chapel to the gate) when it was the library. I watched them move the books to the Sterling Memorial Library when it opened in 1930. There was general rejoicing when that many-turreted building next to the gate was at last restored to reveal the lovely interior, till then filled with bookstacks, of what is now Dwight Chapel. If you take a look inside, try to visualize it without the organ. I have seen two rehabilitations of Battell Chapel at the northeast corner. The first did away with the grim and forbidding bench where the president, the provost, and assorted deans sat every Sunday morning, glaring pointblank, as it seemed to me, at the congregation. Once, one of the deans, lost in a moment of reverie, reached for a cigarette—and caught himself just in time. The second rehab was for beauty—well done, but it produced nothing to rival lovely Dwight Chapel before the organ.

And now for Harkness Tower, Yale’s landmark, directly ahead as we cross High Street. What you see from here is impressive, but what you can’t see without binoculars is fascinating. First the statues. Eight Great Men of Yale look down at us from clock level (about 150 feet): Elihu Yale, Jonathan Edwards, Nathan Hale, Noah Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, John C. Calhoun, S. F. B. Morse, and Eli Whitney. The next tier up becomes allegorical and abstract. Centered on each of the tower’s four sides is a female representation, heroic sized, of one of the careers Yale students are traditionally called to: medicine, business, the law, the church. (Why no teaching? asks your indignant guide.) In the corners of the buttresses on either side are representations of the fates or destinies that govern their lives, twelve in all, ranging from Order, Effort, and Prosperity to War, Death, and Peace. The next tier above depicts Yale men in the uniforms of all the wars in which Yalies have fought from the Revolution to World War I (Harkness Tower was begun in 1917 and completed in 1921). The uniformed men are on the corners; centered are four civilians who never went to Yale but did pretty well: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare. The gargoyles that jut out from the corners about thirty feet from the top are students (freshman to senior) looking out over their campus.

Eight residential colleges were created in the 1930s on the medieval model of Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Ten years ago during a renovation, the tower was encased in scaffolding, top to bottom. If you wanted to look all these worthies in the eye, you could take a guided tour up. It was the chance of a lifetime. I missed it. LiIa Freedman, the local authority on these matters, took it twice. She later described “this invisible Yale … the amazing array of faces and forms that peer down from every height … the host of miniature animals and caricatures that could never be seen from below. …”

Inside the tower, on the ground floor, is a tiny chapel, established in 1933, when the structure became a part of Branford College as a memorial for the Branford men who died in World War I.

Branford College? In the early 1930s Yale College entered upon a new era, the so-called college plan. Sometime in the mid-1920s Edward S. Harkness, ’97, furthering his benefactions to Yale, offered to rebuild Yale College on the model of Oxford and Cambridge universities, an idea that had long been simmering on Yale’s back burner. Such radical changes come slowly in academia, but by the end of the decade, all difficulties had been overcome and construction was under way. In 1933 six colleges, Branford among them, were formally opened. Since then, through other gifts, six more have been added.

The effect on undergraduate life has been revolutionary and, in the eyes of this outsider, wholly beneficial. They provide twelve of those “inwardnesses” that come near to defining life at Yale. Each is a microcosm of the university, with its own courtyard (Branford is regarded as one of the most beautiful), dining hall, common room, and library. Some have squash courts, a darkroom, or a printing press. Each has a Fellowship of faculty members and distinguished outsiders, some of whom have offices in the college; all are available for advice and consultation. Each has a resident master and dean who, with spouse, does all he or she can to see that the system works. My own observation is that it does.

When we crossed High Street, we entered another architectural world: the Gothic. The term alone kindles the imagination—visions of those towering cathedrals across the water at Reims, Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, and statues everywhere of saints, scenes from the Bible, and, of course, gargoyles. Above the Branford College Gate you’ll see a liberal education carved in the arch. Each little figure represents one of the graduate or professional studies to which students may aspire. Across the top of the arch, you may read the imperishable but, as we’ve seen, all-too-vulnerable motto, “For God, for country, and for Yale.” Yale’s version of the Gothic goes in heavily for gargoyles, one of the features that provide amusement for us tourists. They’re not all high up. Weird pieces peep out at you from the walls of the Sterling Library, the Law School, the Hall of Graduate Studies.

I’ve witnessed many millions’ worth of building over sixty years, none of it wasted. Yale has grown in every way.

The Law School, for instance, struck it rich. Listen to the Handbook for Tour Guides: “The sculptures adorning its walls depict criminals, policemen, harlots, judges, lawyers, a law school class asleep, a professor asleep in class, an overworked law student, and a convict being whispered to by a devil and an angel.” And along these lines, don’t miss the delights of the Sterling Memorial Library, especially in that long gallery that greets you as you come in the Wall Street entrance. Poignant studies of students at “work“—some halfasleep, some half-gone on beer (or whatever), some all gone—may raise the question “Does anybody do any work around here?” Farther on there is a satiric series on tours and tour guides. ( I ignore it.) Keep on and take a long look at the Sterling’s handsome nave, now almost overflowing with card catalogs, but how else can some 4.5 million books be handled? Look up and absorb the windows; there’s a story in each. Observe the mural at the altar: Mother Yale, handing out (what else?) the Truth and the Light. The allegory of the painting is complex, another liberal education in symbols. Every detail is meaningful—for example, the lady is treading underfoot a crimson carpet, Harvard’s color.

You won’t find many more such caperings in Yale buildings. Walk down Wall Street from the Hall of Graduate Studies (the Law School on your left, the Sterling Library on your right) and, crossing High Street, look to your left, and you’ll see what I mean: the massive Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the solemn Greek colonnade of the Bicentennial Buildings, Woolsey Hall beyond, with the Rotunda connecting them. Directly facing Wall Street, with Commons to its left, is the modestly French Renaissance Woodbridge Hall, built in 1901 to house the central administrative offices of the president and the secretary. The names of Yale’s founders are inscribed just below the cornice, and on the east side a quotation from the Aeneid (Book VI) reads, in translation, “They ennobled life through the arts and made others mindful of them,” a fitting sentiment to grace Beinecke Plaza, Yale’s most austere enclosure. Gothic irregularities would be unthinkable here. It is all Vermont marble, granite paving—classic purity. Various efforts to lighten the tone (pop sculptures, mobiles, et cetera) come and go. The recent student effort to dramatize the plight of South African blacks by erecting a tumbledown shanty in the Plaza was not for fun.

From Wall Street, turn right on High Street and you’ll see the pleasant greensward of the Cross Campus stretching to the east of the main entrance of the Sterling. If it’s a sunny day, about noon, there may be groups of picnickers or sunbathers enjoying what has become a favorite gathering place in the pleasant months, preserved in its greenness, incidentally, by those brave students who, in 1968, threw themselves before the bulldozers, even camped out several nights, to thwart an architect’s plan to dot the space with ventilators for the underground library below. That wall those students are leaning against, facing south and nicely warmed by the sun, belongs to Berkeley College. The other half of the college is on your right; a tunnel connects the two in case of bad weather. As you head east past Berkeley, the next building on your right is Calhoun College; opposite it is W. L. Harkness Hall, where I sweated out my early days. Full to the brim with classrooms and faculty offices, it’s one of the busiest buildings in Yale. Across College Street to your left, that little white frame building is a rarity, the Elizabethan Club. It houses one of the most remarkable collections of Shakespearean and other Renaissance items in the country and, rarer still, is devoted exclusively to afternoon tea and conversation among students, faculty, and guests. Farther to your left on College Street, the cultural level continues high, with the School of Music and Sprague Hall, for concerts unsuited to the larger Woolsey Hall, facing each other. It was in Sprague that Paul Hindemith conducted his annual concerts, demonstrating the use of the ancient instruments from the Yale collection.

Yale’s version of the Gothic goes in heavily for gargoyles and antic carvings that mock collegiate life.

Let us continue our walk by returning to Branford Gate on High Street (Yale can’t be found in a straight line). Look to the south. The first building beyond Branford is Jonathan Edwards College; since it is next to Harkness, it is Gothic to match. The second building, that brownstone affair with narrow slits for windows and a massive door, is Skull and Bones, first of the secret societies, built in 1856 and still impregnable. The Bridge of Sighs (Yale will go anywhere for its architecture) over High Street at the end of the block connects two parts of the Yale art-and-architecture complex.

Follow me through the attractive walkway called Library Street, between Jonathan Edwards and Branford, west to York Street, busy with traffic, where town and gown live and work cheek by jowl. The building facing us is the University Theater and Drama School, where Paul Newman, Elia Kazan, and Meryl Streep got their starts. Down to the left, that thin building, flat up against an apartment house, is the home of the Yale Daily News, where Henry Luce and William F. Buckley, Jr., learned their trade. Now look to the right of the University Theater toward Alumni House, nerve center for some hundred thousand living graduates. To its right another pleasant walkway leads inward to the fine Georgian courtyard of Pierson College, nicely free from the York Street bustle. It is Davenport College that provides the north wall of the walkway and, belying its Georgian interior, gives its Gothic face to York Street and, across the street, to Gothic Branford and Saybrook. Why? It is said that it was Mrs. Harkness’s wish that every building facing Harkness Quadrangle, as it was originally called, be Gothic.


And thereby hangs a tale: Another agitation for the undergraduates, who had learned in their courses in art and architecture what real Gothic was. All those steel girders, mercilessly exposed during construction, gave the show away. Out of the discussion came the term girder Gothic, the invention not of the undergraduates but of an instructor sympathetic to the cause, Lewis P. Curtis.

Beyond Davenport lies what’s left of the famous York Street haberdasheries, leading to one of the busiest corners in the area and across to where the shops and restaurants climax at Mory’s, whose history is so intertwined with Yale’s as to warrant its inclusion in the official Buildings and Grounds of Yale (1979), though starred as a “related institution.” Related? As well think of Yale without Mory’s as Mory’s without the Whiffenpoofs.

Authorities differ, but legend has it that Frank Moriarty and his wife opened a bar on Wooster Street in 1847; during several moves and changes of name it became popular with Yale students. Mory’s moved to its location on York Street in 1911, by then incorporated as a private club open only to Yale students, faculty, and alumni. Its most compelling features are its tables carved with the initials of innumerable Yalies over every square inch of surface (apparently in those days every student came armed with carving tools); and the Whiffenpoofs, whose song “To the tables down at Mory’s / To the place where Louis dwells” was made famous by Rudy Vallee, ’27 (himself not a Whiff), and commemorates the memory of Louis Lindler of the Temple Bar, who offered to provide free drinks for the Whiffs as long as they kept singing. You can still hear them on Monday nights.

Remember, we have been touring the heartland of Yale College. The Hall of Graduate Studies, coming next on York Street, is one of only two intrusions, so far, of the postgraduate aspect of Yale life. The other is the Law School, just across the street. The Medical School and the School of Nursing are a good half-mile to the south; the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies a half-mile to the north; and the Divinity School a short piece beyond that. Each is worth a visit. Years ago the witty President Hadley commented on how appropriately the graduate departments of the university of his day were located: “The Law School on the road to the jail, the Medical School on the road to the cemetery, the Divinity School on the road to the poorhouse.”

What adds flavor to the whole magnificent complex, what keeps a spring in the step and the arteries open, is the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. When it was built in 1932, it was the largest indoor athletic facility in the world. (In 1980 the Soviets, in a friendly gesture, saw to it that the Moscow Olympic Complex was bigger by a few square yards.) Here the undergraduates flock, presidents, chaplains, professors of all grades, medical folk of all stripe come for recreation. There is something for all: steam rooms, swimming pools, squash courts, basketball courts, rowing tank, golf cage, running tracks, exercise classes, et cetera, et cetera. Once, during a Maine summer, I met two young men about to enter Dartmouth. Skiing. Hikes. Nature. They were excited. Imagine my surprise to find them, that fall, in the freshman class at Yale. “Why?” I asked. “Oh, we stopped in New Haven and checked out that gym.” I’ve no doubt the Yale Bowl had something to do with their decision—and if they got out there, the vast acreage that the bowl looks down upon, where lesser mortals work off their aggression in intercollegiate and intramural strife: football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, indoor polo, and the rest. To beat all that, the skiing has to be very good.

Take a long look at the Sterling’s handsome nave, now overflowing with the card catalogs for 4.5 million books.

A closing word about those phantom voices I hear coming from those phantom faculty meetings. An editoral in The New York Times tipped me off when I first got here in the fall of 1929. Come to New Haven, it said, and take in those three virtuosi of the Yale English Department: William Lyon Phelps, Chauncey Brewster Tinker, John Milton Berdan. Worth an early morning’s ride on the day coach. Since then there have been others (and still are) I’d go even farther for.

What do I think after sixty years of it? I’ve witnessed many millions of dollars’ worth of building, none of it wasted; some important social changes—the college plan and, since 1969, coeducation, equally enriching; curricular innovations that meant progress—directed studies, area studies; increased participation of students in the decision-making process; a wider and deeper concern for ethnic and minority problems. It seems to me Yale has grown in every way. I have worries, of course. I lament the passing of the Yale Review and such programs as the Scholars of the House, a super honors program that gave a dozen or so seniors complete freedom for a major project. (Do I detect a failure of nerve here?) I see a tendency toward theorizing, analysis, and special pleading invading the humanities. What I knew once as literary criticism (now, all too often, “hermeneutics”) has been fragmented into many “isms”: structuralism, deconstructionism, Freudianism, Marxism, historicism, et cetera— each, to an unreconstructed humanist like me, with its own pair of blinders. Among students, I sense a more insistent careerism; in the faculty, professionalism. Sometimes I wonder where the love has gone, the joy. But I do not despair. I’m told there is plenty left.

Shortly after he retired, Professor Tinker gave a lecture on William Blake to a full house, as always, and (as always) it was more of a reading than a lecture. With the forces of the New Criticism raging around him, he came to one of Blake’s loveliest poems, “The Little Black Boy.” Very familiar but, as he read it, all new. Clearly, in the process, he got caught up in it. When he stopped, there was pin-drop silence. All he said was, “That’s a good poem.” It was enough.

My advice is to catch a day coach, come see what you can see, and hear what you can hear.


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