WATERTOWN — William MacMullen ’82 is a Yale man if there ever was one. He and his three siblings all went to Yale, his mother was a professor and his father was master of Calhoun College.
He is now headmaster of the Taft School in an area of rural Connecticut that could have been designed for prep-school life. MacMullen is only the fifth headmaster in Taft’s 118-year history; the school’s founder and first headmaster, Horace Dutton Taft, graduated from Yale in 1883, founded Taft just seven years later and stayed at its helm until his retirement in 1936.
Taft and Yale have shared many graduates over the years, but on a tour MacMullen gave the News last weekend, it was obvious that the two schools also share much in the way of architecture.
“Just like at Yale, Taft’s campus began with two giants of architecture,” MacMullen said. “You couldn’t have done better than Goodhue and Gamble Rogers.”
The work of James Gamble Rogers, another Yale man who graduated in 1889, and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue has come to define the aesthetic of both campuses. At Taft, between 1912 and 1930, these two architects built a series of rambling brick buildings that recall the Collegiate Gothic tradition of Oxford and Cambridge and connect gracefully to form an intimate campus.
Just under a century later, another architect came to Taft with a similar vision. Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, designed a dormitory for the school that was completed in 2002 and is connected by a bridge and an aesthetic with Gamble Rogers’ final building here.
Earlier this month, University President Richard Levin announced that Stern’s New York firm would design two new residential colleges for Yale. In New Haven, just 30 miles south of Taft, the task for Stern is far different. His complex will not be connected physically to Gamble Rogers’ buildings on central campus — there is a cemetery in the way — but it must still connect visually.
“The colleges are a real challenge,” Stern said in an interview. “But the dormitory at Taft was, shall we say, instructive.”
Horace Taft founded the Taft School in Pelham Manor, N.Y., but moved it to Watertown in 1893. A photograph opposite MacMullen’s desk shows the Civil War-era Victorian hotel that the school first occupied in Watertown; the building had charm, but there is no doubt that Horace Taft always had larger aspirations for his school.
By 1912, Goodhue was designing a major new building for Taft — named Horace Dutton Taft Hall.
(Horace Taft’s brother, William Howard Taft 1878, was the first Yale graduate elected president of the United States and went on to be chief justice of the United States; his oldest son became a senator and his grandson dean of Yale College; an exhibit currently on display at Sterling Memorial Library speculates that one of the two new colleges at Yale could be named Taft College.)
Goodhue was primarily an architect of churches, and the commission at Taft was among his first for a secular institution. The gabled wings that Goodhue designed around a tower are elegant in appearance, but it is the way in which they connect that sets Taft’s campus apart from other, more sprawling boarding schools. Taft is a school built around corridors, where nooks in hallways act almost as common rooms, where the headmaster cannot walk more than a few feet without being stopped by an inquiring student.
If Goodhue’s design succeeded in allowing students to connect with each other, it also succeeded in allowing Gamble Rogers to add several more wings to the school’s complex with a good deal of elegance.
Gamble Rogers designed Charles Phelps Taft Hall (Yale man, class of 1864) in 1929; this later building is almost indistinguishable from Goodhue’s main hall.
The designs of Goodhue and Gamble Rogers were undeniably similar at Taft, but the process was far different with each.
Horace Taft, writing in his 1942 memoir, “Memories and Opinions,” called Goodhue “a man of extraordinary talent, but with an artistic temperament that required some diplomacy in dealing with.”
In contrast, the school’s association with Gamble Rogers, Taft wrote, was “very agreeable.”
In at least this respect, Taft administrators, alumni and students interviewed said, Stern is more of a Gamble Rogers than a Goodhue.
(Full Disclosure: This reporter worked on a book project over the summer in Stern’s office, although he was not involved in any work related to Yale or Taft.)
‘AN ESSENTIAL ARCHITECT’
When alumni chose Will Miller ’78 to join the Yale Corporation in 2005, he decided it was time to step down as chair of the Board of Trustees of Taft. Miller had served on Taft’s board for 28 years and was much feted by the school for his service.
An article about Miller ran in the Taft Bulletin with a large headline that read, “The Essential Architect.” Architect was a fitting term for Miller, a financial-services executive, because it was he who oversaw the rebirth of Taft’s campus.
Miller is from Columbus, Ind., the town that his father, industrial magnate J. Irwin Miller ’31, turned into a showcase of modern architecture. In a telephone interview, Miller recalled that his love of buildings followed him from Columbus to Taft, where as a student he spent hours digging through the school’s archives learning about its various buildings and their history.
On Taft’s board, Miller oversaw a return to traditional design on Taft’s campus after the school’s unpopular foray into modern architecture in the 1960s.
“I’m ordinarily a fan of contemporary buildings,” Miller said in the interview. “But Taft’s campus is so interwoven and its mission and setting are such that we wanted buildings that were harmonious and contextual.”
When it was time to begin planning a new dormitory for Taft, Stern’s firm, known for its traditional work, was a logical choice for Miller and others involved in the decision.
“We chose Stern in no small part because we wanted to extend the use of Collegiate Gothic in a red-brick style,” Miller said. “We wanted someone who could speak the same language as Goodhue and Gamble Rogers, just in a different accent.”
A VOGUE FOR YALE?
The John L. Vogelstein Dormitory that Stern designed for Taft is the first building on the campus seen from the quiet, tree-lined road that leads to the school. (The building is — inexplicably — named for a Harvard graduate.)
Known as the “Vogue,” it is a four-story building that houses 48 female students as well as faculty apartments, seminar rooms and various common spaces. From afar, its octagonal tower stands tall as a reminder of Goodhue’s strong massing. Up close, however, it is the bridge that connects this building’s second story with the main complex that attracts the most attention.
The bridge is without a doubt the part of Stern’s work at Taft that seems most quintessentially Yale. The pair of archways it creates on the ground could easily be a part of Branford College; the walkway overhead is lined with rounded windows that make it an inviting place for students to stop while moving between buildings.
What the bridge shows, MacMullen, Miller and others said, is the extent to which Stern can be successful in connecting his work with what came years before. But no such bridge can be built between the colleges he is designing at Yale and the central campus where Gamble Rogers toiled.
“At Taft, every proportion and idea in the new building had to be measured against its immediate predecessors,” Stern said. “With the colleges, we will be looking at the character and proportions and spaces of all the various colleges, which makes it a unique challenge.”
MacMullen pointed out on the tour that while the Vogelstein Dormitory is connected to Taft’s historic buildings, it sits on what was previously an inactive part of the school’s campus. The back of Gamble Rogers’ building was, for many years, seen as the fringe of campus and a place that students avoided. Today, with the addition of Stern’s building and the courtyard that it creates, the area is far different.
“It was the edge of the neighborhood,” MacMullen said. “And now it looks like any Yale quadrangle — there are students sunbathing, throwing Frisbees, and everything else you would expect.”
Yale administrators hope that Stern’s work will have a similar effect on the triangular tract north of the Grove Street Cemetery where the two new colleges will sit. On the inside, though, the dormitories will be far different from Taft’s: The Taft dormitory is built for high-school students, with students primarily occupying single rooms and faculty apartments never far away; the Yale colleges will feature suites each with their own common room.
The Yale colleges will, as at Taft, be red-brick structures with limestone trim. But in the interview, Stern noted another similarity — a bridge connecting the adjacent colleges may come to define the complex and bring attention to the large walkway that will run between the two new colleges.
It seems reasonable to say, then, that Stern prepped at Taft.