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

No caption.
Yale UniversityArchives
No caption.
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.

Comments