Yale fights the war on ivy

The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.

—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1953

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Yale UniversityArchives
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Though Cross Campus has changed little over the years, the once-prominent ivy is now absent.
Sergio Zenisek
Though Cross Campus has changed little over the years, the once-prominent ivy is now absent.

Yale, it may be said, is the quintessential Ivy League school. So where, then, is all the ivy?

The signature vine of the Ancient Eight is conspicuously absent across Yale’s campus. A few pockets of resistance survive: clinging to the side of Hendrie Hall, climbing up St. Anthony’s Hall and hiding on the backside of Commons.

They are the last remnants of a leafy empire that once was. The only other traces lie in the green stains outside Woolsey and Welch halls and the archival photographs attesting to the columns of vines that used to crawl up Lawrance and Farnam halls and the full mane of ivy that once adorned the entrance to Sterling Memorial Library.

The vines’ virtual extinction is the result of a concerted effort to remove them — a secret war on ivy waged by the Office of Facilities over the past several decades — spurred by the belief that the vines obscure, and even harm, the ornate facades of old buildings.

“Years ago, there was a push to remove it because it can be destructive to masonry,” Eric Uscinski, director of facilities operations, said. “The roots get into the mortar joints, and it holds moisture on the buildings.”

Uscinski said he couldn’t pinpoint a date when the campaign began, but it “goes back a long time.”

As dean of students in the mid-1980s, Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle had to deal with the repercussions of removing the ivy from Welch Hall, he recalled this week — the walls leaked because the mortar came out with the roots.

“Since one of the first priorities of our capital maintenance program,” he said in an e-mail, “was to ‘repair the envelopes’ (i.e., roofs, walls, windows), most if not all of the ivy has been removed.”

That’s not the case at Yale’s esteemed peers, where ivy still runs, or rather grows, wild. Looking around the campuses of Harvard and Princeton, it becomes clear why this is called the Ivy League.

In fact, the origin on that name is disputed. It first started appearing in the 1930s to refer to the old Northeast sports powerhouses. An alternative folk etymology attributes the name to the Roman numeral IV, stemming from a conference of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and a fourth member, which varies depending on the account.

While ivy has now virtually disappeared from the walls of Yale’s buildings, it still exists in many places on the ground, Uscinski said. And where it starts to climb back up the walls, the University continues to fight it back down.

For example, every May as part of the Commencement festivities, a Class Ivy is ceremoniously planted, usually on Dwight Hall. But should that same Class Ivy ever start climbing up Dwight Hall, which used to be covered in vines, it will be, quite unceremoniously, pruned.

Architecture professor Alexander Garvin ’62 ARC ’67 agreed that ivy can cause stone and brick to crumble where it clings to the facades of old buildings.

“Yale has been around for 300 years and intends to be around for hundreds more,” he said. “If that’s going to be the case, you don’t want to have the huge expense of replacing walls.”

But Cesar Pelli, the New Haven architect and former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said the damaging effects of ivy are vastly exaggerated.

“I believe it is well worth the small maintenance bother ivy provokes to achieve the lovely look of ivy growing and waving in the breeze on a stone wall,” he said in an e-mail.

The current dean, Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, suggested that whether or not ivy harms buildings, Yale’s aesthetics don’t call for the vines.

“We have such beautiful buildings, we don’t need to hide them with ivy,” he said.

Yet Garvin, who came to Yale as a freshman in 1958, acknowledged the sense of character the vines used to lend. He says he chose his sophomore-year suite in Branford College overlooking Library Walk for the wisteria hanging out the window.

That wall, like so many others formerly ivy-clad, is now barren.


  • Old Blue ’73

    I agree with Prof. Garvin in both respects. I liked the look of the ivy (I, too, lived in Branford on Library Walk) but the aesthetic doesn’t seem to justify the expense of repairing crumbling walls. The exception might be the old campus. Can Stern really argue any of those buildings other than Vanderbilt, Dwight Hall and the Georgian classroom buildings too beautiful to be hidden by ivy?

  • a Yale parent

    Can we have those vines present on campus but away from buildings?

  • ’13

    Isn’t that what the article says is happening now?

  • ivy lover

    Ivy is beautiful on buildings. Morse and Stiles are concrete and would benefit greatly from ivy…and not be harmed…I read they were specifically designed to have ivy growing on them…at least plant ivy to grow on these two colleges…

  • @#4

    I heard a rumor that Morse and Stiles were originally designed to be covered with ivy and so were made from materials that the ivy couldn’t destroy. The problem was that the material was too resistant, and so the ivy simply will not grow on it.

  • Bring it back

    I agree that Ivy isnt so detrimental or perpetually so that we should allow some of our buildings to regain a little character; the other Ivies have it right and they dont seem to be drowning in repair bills.

  • ACPD

    As with most things at Yale the real story on the ivy is the money story. It is not that ivy is destructive to the exteriors of the buildings (as any horticultural expert will attest and most architects will agree), but rather that the ivy requires maintenance, and Yale does not want to pay grounds people to deal with leaves, plants and large trees. In fact, Yale, with its systematic cutting down of large trees and its refusal to restore the plantings in the motes as well as the ivy, is rapidly becoming a concrete and brick shopping mall of structures.

    During the 80’s and 90’s I served on committees that looked into the condition of Yale’s buildings. It was found that while the Boston Ivy (Note: not all ivies are the same in how they grow–English is much different than Boston.) on the buildings did not cause damage (since it is very loosely adhered to the buildings), it could take advantage of cracks in mortar that were caused by wind, weather, water, traffic and poor maintenance. It also turned out that during the 60’s and 70’s when maintenance on the buildings was deferred, the re-pointing that was done on some of the buildings was done improperly and inadequately which actually made it easier for the ivy to work its way into the mortar.

    Since then, most of Yale’s buildings have been re-pointed properly (which is to say that the old mortar has been drilled out and replaced with new, sound mortar), so that there is no reason why the ivy can’t be allowed to grow back on the buildings. It adds greatly to grace and beauty of the buildings and to the ambiance of the campus. To say that the ivy hides the buildings, is to say that all nudists are right and no one should wear fashion….

  • y10

    good article

  • Plant Lover

    Nothing is more beautiful than the ivy turning color (normally crimson) early in the fall, before the rest of the trees change, etc. Yale is overreacting and ruining the romance and loveliness of the campus. Christopher Alexander would have a cow. She should rethink her grounds policies and beautify the campus integrating nature/building with large trees and blooming plants in addition to ivy. Besides, it would cut down on cooling bills.

  • Old Blue ’73

    Thanks ACPD, for that perspective. Interesting that the YDN reporter didn’t note those points. Sounds like there’s a opportunity for targeted alumni giving or for creation of a foundation: Return the Ivy to Yale, LLC.

  • Disgruntled Harvard Alum

    Re: #6 “the other Ivies have it right” — Harvard and Penn have similar policies to remove ivy from buildings. I’m not sure about the others.

  • LeBaton du Triaffe

    Well-written article. Kudos, Isaac.

  • PhD grad ’09

    I have the greatest picture of my fiance’ walking past an ivy clad building, all green with windows peeking through. He is in stride, with backpack slung and coffee in hand. This yalee framed proudly, and few will know that the outstanding pix was taken in Boston, near Harvard!! OTherwise we were going to travel to some nearby estate to get a CT pix with ivy. Seems we could have one building on campus w ivy. or 2?

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