It is late August, 1962. Bright-eyed Yale men are moving boxes and bookshelves into the University’s two newest colleges, Morse and Ezra Stiles. Word has it that nearly 80 percent of the pristine dorm rooms are singles.
The excitement on campus is palpable.
Fast-forward four decades. As the Yale community once again tries to envision and evaluate the student experience with two new residential colleges, interviews with alumni from the first classes to live in the reimagined Tuscan villas on Tower Parkway reveal that living in brand-new colleges, at least then, was an — almost — entirely positive experience.
A ‘messianic relief’
Forty-five years ago, approximately 300 students voluntarily moved out of their classic Gothic and colonial colleges to live in the angular concrete structures of Ezra Stiles and Morse. They were joined by 150 sophomores fresh off Old Campus, who formed groups of four that were then assigned randomly to a college.
Many of the students who chose to transfer into the new colleges were attracted by the innovative design for the buildings conceived by the famed architect Eero Saarinen, famous for his revolutionary style.
An opinion piece published in the News on Feb. 17, 1959 read, “We greet Mr. Saarinen’s new plans as messianic relief from the tyranny of the unrelieved right angles and regular repetition of forms which characterizes so much modern architecture.”
Edward Dennis ’63, a former Morsel, said although the decision to expand the residential college system was made well before his time, he is under the impression that it was made behind closed doors without student input. Still, he said, “there was great excitement” among students about the expansion.
“I have no memory of any controversy,” he said.
Today, the administration has made a pointed effort to hold discussion meetings for students. But, at least so far, they have been sparsely attended.
Administrators in the early 1960s feared the same lack of interest in transferring to the new colleges.
“They let the word be known that they were seeking volunteers and if there weren’t enough people willing to move, there were going to be conscripts,” John Armor ’64 said. “Essentially, they were going to get volunteers or they were going to tell people they were volunteering.”
But by 1962, Yale had to hold a lottery. Too many students had volunteered.
Dennis said he and his friends chose to transfer because they were fascinated by the architecture — an interest cultivated by a History of Architecture course taught by veteran art history professor Vincent Scully.
“We were very much excited about being the first residents in a Saarinen building,” he said. “We lived on the top floor in this great little four-story building in between the Master’s House and the tower … We had a great view, heated floors, and got to live in a modern design based upon the Italian village of San Gimignano.”
Not only were students interested in the modern architecture, but they were also excited about the new amenities, Armor said. Most alumni interviewed said the heated floor system, which has since fallen into disrepair, was one of the best parts about the new colleges.
Armor said he was especially grateful for the performance stage in the Stiles dining room, on which he and his friends performed “Waiting for Lefty.” In Branford, his original college, the stage had been located in a converted room without adequate wiring. The stage in Stiles, in contrast, had special wiring for professional lighting and sound equipment.
While many alumni said they liked the new style of the buildings, Armor said, the reason for their construction was as much practical as aesthetic, as it was too expensive to construct in the Gothic style. Ezra Stiles and Morse were built for a combined cost of $15 million dollars, which is approximately $100 million dollars today.
In contrast, the projected cost of the two new residential colleges, still under discussion is $600 million.
Alumni said the general response to the opening of the new colleges was positive. But still, there were misgivings.
“I missed the Harry Potter-like architecture of the dining hall in Branford,” Armor said.
Allen Bridges ’65, who was part of the first class to live in Morse for all three years off Old Campus, said one of the major downsides to the new colleges was their lack of tradition. He said he was jealous of students from older colleges, whose alumni had established trust funds that would provide special treats, such as strawberries, for their successors.
Peter Jemings ’63 — who said he was not sorry, but not thrilled about transferring to Ezra Stiles — also missed the tradition that was a part of other students’ lives.
“Stiles was sterile in two senses,” he said. “The literal, as well as in the lack of things like the carved initials in the dining room tables … It didn’t feel like the rest of Yale.”
Adrienne Wong ’10 said while she thinks it would take a special type of person to live in a new college and “shape a new history,” she would most likely not want to live in a new college herself.
“Some people are more adept at fitting into existing tradition,” she said.
Adedana Ashebir ’09 said she does not know enough about the administration’s plans to speculate about how future classes will feel about living in a college without history. But she said it might not be a big problem for incoming Yalies.
“Tradition can be built,” Ashebir said.
Ezra Stiles Master Stuart Schwartz said the University is growing and the idea of erecting new facilites is a logical step in its expansion. Among the implications of new additions to campus, he said, is the need to hire new teaching assistants, professors and dining hall workers. But if the administration approaches the expansion carefully, many more qualified students will be able to take advantage of all Yale has to offer, he said.
“Their success depends not on whether they do it, but how they do it,” he said.