When Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 was master of Morse College in the early 1960s, he made a habit of cross-country skiing in the nearby Grove Street Cemetery. His route was, by necessity, circular — there is only one gate with access in and out of the expansive walled cemetery.
In a telephone interview Thursday from his home in Florida, Scully was not thinking much about snow. But he would still like to see a less confined cemetery sitting in an area of New Haven that is also an increasingly important part of Yale’s campus.
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“Yale is cut right through the liver by that cemetery,” the emeritus Sterling professor of the History of Art said with characteristic zeal. “It would make a great difference if the cemetery were more welcoming.”
As it has become clear that two new residential colleges will soon be built just north of the cemetery along Prospect Street, more and more University officials are becoming convinced that Scully is right: The sandstone wall surrounding the cemetery, they say, must, at least in part, come down.
But words do not move stone. For Yale to drastically alter a historically protected part of New Haven will be no small task — not least because of hesitation on the part of the cemetery’s leadership, which fears that more pedestrian access will bring inappropriate behavior to a cemetery with a storied past.
Cemeteries are, if nothing else, places of great history.
The Grove Street Cemetery, now a National Historical Landmark owned and operated independently of Yale, is no exception. Since its incorporation in 1797, the cemetery has been the burial ground for luminaries ranging from cotton-gin inventor Eli Whitney 1792 to New Haven’s first mayor, Roger Sherman, and several Yale presidents from Ezra Stiles 1746 to A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60.
On Oct. 27, 1947, over a century after the wall’s completion, Henry Townshend, then the cemetery’s historian, delivered a speech to the New Haven Colony Historical Society in which he outlined the cemetery’s roots.
For the better part of its first 50 years, the cemetery had nothing but a wooden fence around it. But as the wood started to rot, prominent New Haven residents began to consider a more permanent enclosure for what was destined to be their final resting place.
Between 1840 and 1845, after raising around $14,000 in private funds from local residents that were matched by the city, cemetery leaders oversaw the construction of a wall that exists to this day.
Construction of the sandstone wall began, Townshend noted, on the north side of the cemetery, which was at the time the least central section of the cemetery’s perimeter. Quickly, the wall was extended to cover the eastern and western portions of the cemetery — now bordering Prospect and Ashmun streets, respectively.
Most interesting, however, was the design for the cemetery’s southernmost end, its Grove Street front. Architect Henry Austin wanted to allow a view of the cemetery on its south side, so he selected a wrought-iron fence in place of the otherwise dominant sandstone wall.
Far and away the Grove Street Cemetery’s most prominent feature, of course, is its Egyptian-Revival gateway, emblazoned with strong letters that read simply: “The Dead Shall Be Raised.”
Denison Olmsted 1813, a Yale science professor, speaking at the gateway’s dedication, expressed his hope that there would be strong interaction between New Haven’s residents and its burial grounds.
“Let us all come hither to think calmly but wisely on our own inevitable destiny,” he pronounced.
Townshend, in his speech, added a few words that are perhaps the perfect explanation of the importance of open walls to achieving the ideal of Olmstead’s lofty words.
“This might have been difficult to do if the massive stone wall intervened,” the historian said.
For Scully and others, the massive stone wall intervenes not just spiritually but also physically.
Yale’s renowned Egyptologist John Darnell pointed out in an interview that — whether a nuisance or not — the stone wall itself is not particularly true to the Egyptian-Revival tradition.
“If you just saw the wall itself,” Darnell said, “I don’t think anything about it says Egyptomania.”
But Darnell, who was quick to praise the gateway itself for its ornamentation and design, also noted the important role the wall plays in providing a sense of intimacy and privacy within the cemetery.
For advocates of opening the cemetery’s walls, that role is a major hurdle. Indeed, a February report examining questions related to the creation of two new residential colleges called for the University to work with the cemetery’s standing committee in hopes of finding mutually agreeable changes.
Joseph Gordon, the dean of undergraduate education and chair of a committee that examined the colleges’ possible impact on academic resources, said he owns “real estate” in the Grove Street Cemetery.
He would just like a better view.
The report itself stayed clear of calling for the demolition of the entire stone wall.
Instead, it includes essentially two recommendations: the addition of a second gate on the north side of the cemetery and a suggestion that “a portion of the cemetery’s historic wall on Prospect Street be replaced with a beautiful wrought-iron face so as to open the cemetery to view and reduce the sense of a forbidding walled-off enclosure.”
In Scully’s mind, such changes would represent progress against a wall that has long “ghettoized” its northern neighbors.
“Ideally, the wall would be metal all the way around,” Scully said in the interview. “But I think there should be at least one gate on the north side — it would make a great difference.”
Gordon said he thinks a few well-placed entry points could help the cemetery feel more like those in the centers of some European cities that act almost as parks.
“I think it would make for a less intimidating presence,” he said. “And I think it would mean that more people would get to appreciate the cemetery.”
University Planner Laura Cruickshank said in an interview earlier this semester that regulations pertaining to historic sites could pose difficulties for any potential changes to the cemetery walls. She could not be reached for comment this week.
Beyond simply preservation concerns, though, cemetery proprietors see other problems with any downsizing of their perimeter.
William Cameron Jr., the cemetery’s superintendent, said he would not be able to adequately patrol the grounds if more entrances were set up — which, he said, could lead to troublesome behavior.
“There would be drinking, there would be drugs,” he said. “This is a beautiful place, and it should just be left alone.”
Scully, for his part, said increased foot traffic might actually make the cemetery safer, and Gordon also said security personnel could be added as necessary.
Still, Emeritus History professor Howard Lamar GRD ’51, who served as acting president of the University from 1992 to 1993 and is one of several University affiliates on the cemetery’s standing committee, said one gate is best for a cemetery.
“It’s a sacred and private place,” he said. “It should be treated as such.”
And while Lamar did not rule out the possibility of adding more entrances, he did say that such changes will likely not happen any time soon.
“We’ll address it when the colleges are built,” he said. “We have to wait and see.”