Cemetery, in heart of campus, to impact details of proposal

At the bicentennial celebration for the Grove Street Cemetery in 1997, University President Richard Levin joked with those in attendance about the cemetery’s location in the heart of Yale’s campus.

“The dead shall be raised?” he asked, referencing the famous words imposingly inscribed above the brownstone front gate. “It certainly shall if Yale ever needs the property.”

Ten years later, Levin’s joke — first uttered by former Yale President Jeremiah Day — has suddenly become relevant. But for students and administrators considering the effect of two new residential colleges on the Yale undergraduate experience, the cemetery is no laughing matter.

The Grove Street Cemetery, a National Historical Landmark and the final resting place of founding fathers, celebrities and a samurai, stands between central campus and the Prospect Street location proposed for two new residential colleges. Administrators said figuring out how to accommodate the 18-acre plot, which houses more than 14,000 bodies and has room for 2,000 more, will be crucial in drawing up plans to integrate the colleges into campus life.

The neighborhood surrounding the cemetery currently comprises mostly quiet, residential streets, but if colleges 13 and 14 go up beyond its stone walls, the area could be transformed into a bustling hub of student activity, complete with a gymnasium, recreational spaces and even restaurants and other businesses.

Although officials have in the past rejected suggestions that they allow the University to undertake construction in the cemetery, the current manager told the News he is open to reconsidering the cemetery’s relationship with Yale.

Yalies crossing over

For many current students, the Grove Street Cemetery is best known for its tall brownstone walls, which line the march up Prospect Street to Science Hill. Although the cemetery offers free tours once a week from May to November, few Yalies pass through its gates and into the two-century-old burial ground.

“I’m a junior, and I don’t feel like I’ve been exposed to it,” Daniel Marks ’09 said.

But if the Yale Corporation approves the expansion plan in February, the geographic center of campus will likely shift to include the cemetery and the surrounding area. Former Calhoun College Master William Sledge, chairman of a committee investigating the impact of the new colleges on student life, said the cemetery’s intrusive location makes the site of the new colleges feel far away.

“It’s on the other side of the cemetery, which is an enormous barrier psychologically, architecturally, spiritually,” he said at a forum on expansion earlier this semester. “We’re trying to develop ideas about how to integrate it.”

At an October forum to discuss the expansion, Brad Hargreaves ’08 said he worries that the geographical center of the campus will shift to the cemetery, which he said “is essentially an eight-foot-high wall.”

Marcus Strong ’11 said the students of the 12 existing colleges may not mesh well with the students of the other two.

“No one would want to go around the cemetery to get to the other colleges,” he said. “It would suck for those people.”

Members of the student life committee said no property nearer to campus could accommodate the hundreds of new students that would fill the new colleges.

In several faculty-student forums in October, administrators said they hope retail stores and recreational facilities in the area to the north of the cemetery will attract more students to the location. The plans also include the possible formation of a student center at a “third building.”

Historically, the cemetery has not had a close relationship with the University, which has traditionally avoided tampering with the plot. According to the Friends of Grove Street Cemetery Web site, former Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 signed a declaration in the 1970s stating that the University would not touch the cemetery.

The signing occurred around the time Yale officials approached the cemetery managing board in “casual talks” about a possibility of undertaking construction in the cemetery, current Board President G. Harold Welch, Jr ’50 said. The proposal was quickly shot down, he said.

“It was a ridiculous idea,” Welch said. “It really wasn’t for discussion.”

But he said cemetery managers would be receptive to any conversations the University would like to have concerning their changing relationship with Yale.

“We’re totally independent,” Welch said. “But we’re happy neighbors.”

In Oct. 2006, the Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to cede three streets to the north of the cemetery — Prospect Place and sections of Mansfield and Sachem Streets — to Yale in return for about $10 million to improve city roads.

The cemetery is currently under the jurisdiction of Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead, who said while the cemetery is a symbol of New Haven’s rich culture, it does little to contribute to the ward otherwise. But since the cemetery is a National Historical Landmark, Morehead said, it is here to stay — and will likely never be altered.

A resting ground on Myrtle Avenue

Cemetery managers have more than just physical space to protect — they have a rich and varied history as well.

The Grove Street Cemetery, officially called the New Haven City Burial Ground, was founded in October 1797 by land proprietor James Hillhouse and several other New Haven residents. It is the oldest chartered, Victorian-style cemetery in the United States, according to the Friends Web site.

The cemetery was established on what at the time were the outskirts of the city. Yale was then just a “brick building with a few students here and there,” Friends member Patricia Illingworth said at a tour she led last Saturday.

In 1845, the brownstone wall and Egyptian-style gate that surround the cemetery were completed by world-renowned architect Henry Austin. Below the words “The Dead Shall Be Raised,” a reference to the second coming of Christ, lies a uraeus, the Egyptian symbol for immortality, Illingworth said. The well known wall replaced a wooden fence, which did not adequately defend the cemetery against the wolves who would pick on the scraps of corpses and spread disease to the nearby residents.

Although the University has no institutional connection to the cemetery, several important figures in Yale’s history are buried beyond its gates.

Fourteen Yale presidents and hundreds of faculty members and alumni are buried along Myrtle Avenue, the paved road that cuts through the center of cemetery.

Yale professor emeritus Josiah Willard Gibbs Sr. 1858 is buried under a headstone near the front of the cemetery. Gibbs is famed for finding a translator to record the story of a slave captive on board the ship Amistad.

In the center of the cemetery, Yale President emeritus Arthur Twining Hadley ’1876 lies buried in complete samurai garb, katana included, because he died in Japan.

Also interred in the Grove Street Cemetery is Mary Goodman, a Divinity School laundry worker who donated her life savings of about $5,000 to the school upon her death in 1872. The Divinity School today offers a $5,000 scholarship to minority students in honor of Goodman’s gift.

For now, the cemetery and its denizens occupy a secluded space largely untouched by the bustle of Yalies.

After 32 years on the job, cemetery superintendent William Cameron Jr. has his daily routine set in stone.

Cameron arrives at the cemetery at 6 a.m. everyday. He cleans the headstones, rakes leaves and mans the front office. He said he does “too many things to mention” before finally clocking out at 4:30 p.m., sometimes later — seven days a week, all year.

With a University expansion, Cameron and his wife Joan, the assistant superintendent of the cemetery, may get to spend a lot more time with Yalies. Cameron said he is all for it.

“They’re wonderful kids,” he said. “Very cordial.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    The outrageousness of proposals to desecrate the Grove Street Cemetery surpass belief! It is one of only two cemeteries in the U.S. on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the first private nonprofit cemetery in the world. It is a place of unique historical importance.

    Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that any responsible person would brand its presence as "intrusive" or seriously propose its destruction.

    Interesting that no one has described the nearby university power plant -- which really is intrusive -- or the pricey rowhouses on York Square as worthy of demolition!

  • Anonymous

    One simple and potentially dramatic fix would be to light the walls of the grove street cemetery at night, with light washing either up or down the walls. That way the pathways could also be lit, and the sense of walking by a dark, forboding stone wall would be minimized. It would also make those relatively isolated pathways much safer.

  • Anonymous

    I haven't heard any proposals to touch the cemetery, let alone desecrate it. But keep in mind that the moving of cemeteries has plenty of precedents, prominently including the removal of New Haven's burial ground from the Green to Grove Street. Jesus said, 'let the dead bury the dead' to which William Sloane Coffin once added 'and not the living' meaning that the living shouldn't govern their lives by what they think the dead would want. Moving this cemetery is highly unlikely and certainly not desirable in the abstract, but I expect that the fiduciaries responsible for the cemetery would listen to a well thought-through proposal that addressed not only its removal but its relocation and the reconstruction of this beautiful landmark and consider a proposal in its entirety. A quick look at a map of the Yale campus leaves no doubt the advantage to Yale of a move. But the cemetery trustees would need to see a net benefit to the cemetery and the community it serves, and it would certainly take a lot to overcome the obvious negatives.

  • Anonymous

    Now, why lift all those bodies? It's a Yale and New Haven landmark… The mere suggestion of this shows a lack of respect by Yale's authorities for New Haven's unique history… Shame on you.

  • Anonymous

    "It is the first private nonprofit cemetery in the world" - just wondering, is that true, doesnt seem likely.

    also, I think the University is WAY to set on using the space beyond the cemetery. There are spaces (not together) throughout downtown proper that could host the two new colleges including residential buildings owned by the University.

  • Anonymous

    The people in the cemetery are long dead. If Yale decides the land is useful, Yale should be able to use it - the dead are too dead to care.

  • Anonymous

    Why can't they build on stilts above the cemetary? That's what the new museum of the Acropolis in Athens by architect Bernard Tschumi is.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe instead of focusing on mass-exhumation the negotiations might instead be discussing making the cemetary a more open space that's not so dark and forboding. Allowing a brightly-lit walkway right down the middle of the cemetary (where there's already a road), through the front gate to an inviting Beineke plaza entrance would help integrate the new site (and add an interesting university thoroughfare).

    Science majors have been walking far more distant places than the corner of Prospect and Trumbull for years, and to be honest the walk to WLH will be shorter than Pierson's. The area in question has abundant space for the colleges and many future expansions, and it could quickly become as much a part of the university as Cross Campus with student centers, study spaces, dining halls, (bubble tea?) etc. If science classes were held in WLH (or even Lanman Wright) and non-science classes were taught on science hill, this would help even more. Yale is running out of room to expand, and this project would open up a huge set of possibilities.

  • Anonymous

    "Hey where are we meeting up before going to lunch? By Sheffield's tomb or Eli Whitney's mausoleum?"