- 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
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.