- 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
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.