- Historic Sites
An Unofficial Tour Of Yale
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
April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
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.