- 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
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.