With West campus, Yale excuses form for function

WEST HAVEN, Conn. — Wild turkeys are a rarity on Yale’s campus in New Haven, but only seven miles away, a flock of dozens roams free across the rolling hills of the newly acquired West Campus.

The turkeys are all that inhabit the 137 acres of Yale’s newest scientific treasure, the former home of the pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare. Where scientists toiled just two years ago developing treatments for cancer, diabetes and obesity, there is now little more than silence. And the turkeys.

Although this bench and table on the Yale West campus do not reflect the neo-Gothic feel of central campus, professors and officials are excited about the complex’s facilities.
Kate Hawkins
Although this bench and table on the Yale West campus do not reflect the neo-Gothic feel of central campus, professors and officials are excited about the complex’s facilities.

For most Yale students, the West Campus exists only in the University’s telling. But on an exclusive tour of the sprawling campus bisected by a river and peppered with a slew of modern labs and offices, the real West Campus exposed itself to the News last week.

When compared to the neo-Gothic Yale most students know, the only thing familiar about the corporate West Campus is the trademark dark blue of its hastily installed Yale signage. But Yale’s chemists, biologists and engineers see something different when looking at West Campus. To them, it is nothing short of a scientific oasis.

“Until you really get on the property,” said Linda Lorimer, the University vice president and secretary, “you can’t even imagine it.”


The commute to the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory involves a leisurely stroll up Hillhouse Avenue, described by Charles Dickens as the most beautiful street in America. The trek to the West Campus, on the other hand, requires a slog through traffic-congested Interstate 95.

In a Yale minibus, the drive is a less-than-pleasant 15 to 20 minutes. Provost Andrew Hamilton promises that once one gets the hang of it — he has made the commute to the site “hundreds of times” — the drive is 10 minutes flat, with one exception.

“It can be significantly longer Friday at 4 o’clock,” he said, “and that’s not much of a surprise.”

The arrival here, at a security gate just beyond Exit 41, is an anticlimax. The only indication that one is about to enter a sliver of the Ivy League is a small blue sign, in Yale’s own typeface and matching those around central campus, identifying the property as the West Campus.

But to an objective observer, the campus appears nothing more than a pedestrian business park.

While Yale professors have gathered in oak-paneled lecture halls for centuries, it is hard to imagine a more stark contrast than the corporate conference rooms anonymously lining the hallways of West Campus.

Enter Building B25, where the 60,000 square feet of administrative offices resonate an unimaginable silence. The modern, glass-paneled lobby is empty. The plush, 250-person auditorium — designed as if it might have been planned as part of a conference center at a Marriott hotel — is equally empty.

Building B25 is one of several severely corporate buildings on the West Campus that would make Yale architect James Gamble Rogers 1889 roll over in his well-appointed grave. The last remaining employees from Bayer still occupy one of them, annexed in the western corner of campus.

Overall, the complex provides some 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space — perfect for providing much-needed space for Yale’s gallery and museum collections — and another 275,000 square feet of offices. The warehouse looks like a warehouse — long, flat, its walls of cold metal. The offices, sheathed in glass, look like offices.

None of it looks like Yale.

“It is not pretty,” said Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. “It’s a collection of buildings that aren’t pretty.”


But Yale did not buy the West Campus for its architectural élan.

It bought it for spaces like Building B27, a glass-and-brick research building opened only six years ago. The space was never even fully occupied before Bayer began downsizing and ultimately pulled out of this city. To scientists like Hamilton, the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry, Building B27 is among the reasons that the West Campus is a land of milk and honey.

The facilities, Hamilton said, are “magnificent.”

For now, the rows upon rows of sinks and laboratory tables are almost serene. There are no scientists, but there are plenty of beakers and flasks, lonely and collecting dust in locked cabinets.

This much a non-empiricist might not appreciate. But to Hamilton and other science professors at Yale, the laboratories bring a twinkle to the eye. They were the reason the University shelled out $109 million in cash last summer to make the largest land acquisition in Yale’s history.

“The quality of the science facilities is absolutely first-rate,” University President Richard Levin promised a reporter this week. Just look at the fume hoods, he said.

Fume hoods, you say?

Yes, fume hoods, Levin said. Just ask the provost.

“His defining characteristic is this notion that they have eight-foot hoods instead of the six-foot hoods that we have [in New Haven],” Levin said. “This is sort of symbolic of the fact that these are top-quality facilities.”

So just how thrilling are these hoods?

“I am not sure I would use the word ‘thrilling’,” Hamilton wrote in an e-mail message, “but certainly 8-foot hoods are much coveted by scientists who work with chemicals.”

The larger hoods allow for more manipulations to be done in them and can make laboratory work very efficient, Hamilton said. Indeed, Yale’s new Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building was heralded for its eight-foot hoods — something new to the Yale campus — but the Bayer laboratories outshine even that facility.

Nay, there are not just eight-foot hoods here, Hamilton said. The Bayer labs even have 12-foot hoods, he said.


Now, 18 months since Bayer announced it would vacate the facilities, the discordant assemblage of buildings at the West Campus begs to be reinhabited.

Boasting such amenities as a cafeteria capable of serving 300, a 24,000-square-foot children’s center and sprawling parking lots suitable for several hundred vehicles, the complex once was home to as many as 3,000 employees. Today, save for a few idling Yale Security vehicles and a maintenance crew fixing a speed bump in one of parking lots, the campus is empty, abandoned but preserved for posterity.

The vast emptiness is disconcerting; the complex is preserved, frozen in time, ready to be awakened.

For instance, while the cafeteria is a far cry from the lofty college dining halls that have served Elis for decades, it remains a tantalizing feature for Yale administrators.

Already, members of Yale University Dining Services have assessed the cafeteria, said Lisa Maloney, a project manager for the site. Still, it will be many years before the smell of Yale’s savory sustainable fare reaches the cafeteria.

“We need to reach critical mass to get it going again,” she said.

In other ways, the facilities outstrip those of Yale’s main campus in convenience. Spacious tunnels connect the four main research buildings, an enviable innovation for Yale students who rue the temperamental weather of southern Connecticut. A third-floor conference room in one of the laboratory buildings leads to a balcony with a sweeping view not found on central campus — that of Long Island Sound.


Indeed, the boxy buildings of the West Campus are juxtaposed with a relatively peaceful natural environment.

Yale has never had a river to call its own. Never before had that shortcoming become such an insecurity for the University as it did when Levin testified earlier this month before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, when Senator Larry Craig derided him for Yale’s comparatively high greenhouse-gas emissions compared to those of one of the schools in his home state of Idaho.

“For Yale University, what you need is a major river and a dam in New Haven,” quipped Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, drawing laughter from the hearing room. “That will help you a whole lot — you should work on that!”

Little did Sanders know about the Oyster River, a little-known but much-loved waterway that runs through the property here. Stern said it “will become an important green space” as the campus develops.

The campus also includes walking paths and a large woodland, home to deciduous trees and Lyme disease.

At every mention of the West Campus this year, administrators have admonished: You have to visit it. Don’t take our word for it. It’s really quite beautiful.

Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said for all the potential donors her office has toured around the campus, the reaction is predictable — and generally unanimous.

“People will say, ‘I saw pictures of it, but wow, you have to come and see it,’” she said.

“When people see the place — the scope of it, the size of it — and that it’s all there, ready to be used, that’s what makes this enormous impression on everyone,” Reichenbach added. “All of a sudden it dawns on you: ‘Oh my goodness, it’s real, it’s so big!’”

All that is missing is the ivy. But Yale’s scientists are not complaining.

For part three, a look at how former New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz will bring law and order to the West Campus, see Thursday’s News.

—Raymond Carlson and Nora Wessel reported from West Haven, and Thomas Kaplan from West Haven and Washington, D.C. Paul Needham contributed reporting from New Haven.

Comments

  • yale student

    LOL, I love it. I love the fumehoods detail.
    Great piece.