Yale’s roofs: a view from the top

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I walked up to a boy in dark clothes sitting on a bench on Cross Campus, right outside of Calhoun. It was 11:03 p.m., and I was a few minutes late for our meeting.

“You’re J. right?” I inquired, and he nodded and asked me where I wanted to go.

“I’m pretty new to this,” I admitted. “We can go wherever you want to go. I’m sure I’ll be impressed.”

“Then let’s go to the TD Bell Tower,” he replied, smiling.

J. was a virtual stranger, a friend of a friend of a friend. When I expressed an interest in seeing Yale from its rooftops, I was told that he was the guy to ask. He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Yale’s rooftop facilities and how to access them. For every roof I thought to ask about, he could regale a story of a nighttime trespass equal parts brave and well considered.

We entered the gates of Timothy Dwight, and J. swiped me into an entryway. We ascended the stairs until we reached the top and then passed through an unlocked door onto a corridor of suites. J. stopped in front of a seemingly innocuous door, dropped to his knees and squeezed his fingers into the half-inch space between the door and its sill. After a minute or so of fumbling, he had managed to open the door, and he motioned for me to go inside.

We climbed three or four flights of stairs before I looked above me and noticed that I could see the night sky. I climbed up a ladder and out onto the deck of the bell tower. I looked around and saw all of Yale unfold in front of me. It had just begun to mist, and the sky was blanketed in a lavender haze that made the buildings around me seem like an architect’s model.

“How did you figure all of this out?” I asked my host.

“When I first moved into TD, I knew I wanted to come up here,” he replied, grinning. “We figured it out about a week into the school year. That first time, we had to take the door off of its hinges.” He laughed.

J. first became interested in visiting rooftops during his high school days in Texas. The adventuring spirit followed him to Yale, and once he made his way onto a rooftop, he discovered a vibrant community of fellow climbers .

Once I started looking for climbers at Yale, I realized that they are everywhere, hushed but tightknit, a generous collection of brave souls. If you want to escape from the horizontal landscape of downtown New Haven, there are plenty of places to live out that dream. Some spaces are not to hard to access, like the roof of Becton Center and that of Trumbull College. Some of the spaces are more tightly controlled than others — making it up Pierson’s bell tower, for example, requires you to know someone with a key. J. met his connection, a FroCo, when he was a freshman. When I asked how they met, he told me a simple, heartening truth about the rooftop climbing community.

“Well, to be perfectly honest I probably met her on a roof,” he said. “When you make it up to places like these, you just start running into other people with the same interests as you.”

Accessing other spaces just takes a certain measure of bravery and knowhow. For example, some of the buildings on Hillhouse Avenue are placed so close together that it is possible to place your back against one wall and walk up the other. Some roofs, like Sterling Memorial Library’s and a few of the colleges’, require you to climb out of a window and onto a ledge before you can get on top.

You should be sure not to confuse rooftops with rooftop terraces, however. There are plenty of terraces on campus that provide you with spectacular views. There are a few that require a bit of surreptitious behavior to access them — I had to borrow an architecture student’s ID to make it onto their carefully manicured roof. And there is a terrace in Payne Whitney Gymnasium that requires a bit of sneaking past guards and construction workers to access — but these are architectural spaces intended for at least semi-public use. The rooftop terraces at Yale Health and Yale-New Haven hospital have the aura and landscaping of zen gardens. It’s all calm and no adrenaline, even though I can testify that the best view of campus possible certainly comes when you’re standing amidst the foliage on top of Yale-New Haven.

The best experience, regardless of the view, certainly comes from that sense knowing that you are somewhere that you’re not supposed to be. One source recounted his method for gaining access to the roof of the University Theater. There’s a room on top of the catwalk that you have to go into and then move aside a rock covering a tunnel that leads out to the roof. He mentioned that he has only been twice because getting out there is such a hassle, but that every time, the rooftop was amazing. He recommended that I not try to go while “Three Sisters” is running; it might be a bit too conspicuous.

The surrealistic nature of these beautiful, liminal spaces must be why they’re so romantic. I know of a few relationships that began on the roof of Silliman, and a few people who have had sex on rooftops.

J. has an indistinct goal of starting a panlist for roof climbers, because there’s this huge bank of knowledge out there waiting to be tapped. If we work together, we get on even the most vexing of roofs.

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