Bridging Old Yale and New: The Hopeful Legacy of Mory’s

Mory's_club_New_Haven_Connecticut_circa_1914
// WEEKEND

It’s difficult to go through four years at Yale without hearing: “To the tables down at Mory’s / To the place where Louis dwells / To the dear old Temple Bar we love so well.” For years, Yale’s most storied a cappella groups have sung of evenings spent with good drink and good company at the famous club. But the past six years of Mory’s history haven’t been as rosy as the Whiffenpoofs might imply.

In December 2008, this time-honored bastion of Yale tradition was forced to close its doors, citing low revenue and a diminishing endowment. After much fundraising and extensive renovations, Mory’s reopened in the fall of 2010, and since then has put all its efforts into launching Old Yale into the New.

Like Yale, Mory’s has in the past been criticized for being an “old boy’s club” and out of tune with the new generation of Yale and its community. Today, it is trying to shake that image, endeavoring to appeal to a broader audience, one more suited to the modern age, while maintaining their roots — and these roots are strong. Mory’s is steeped in history, a rich and colorful one, closely intertwined with that of Yale.

Mory’s began in 1861 as an obscure alehouse. The working-class saloon, then owned by Frank Moriarty and his wife, was located at 103 Wooster St., close to the waterfront. It wasn’t long before Yale students began trickling inside its oak doors. Indeed, its relaxed atmosphere attracted the attention of the Yale Crew Team, who made the bar their post-practice staple.

Over time, as its popularity with the Yale boys continued to grow, it moved — the first of many such changes — to Court Street, where it was given the name “The Quiet House.” The saloon trappings of before were discarded in favor of a Victorian-style pub, where students congregated to drink Guinness and India Pale Ale.

When Moriarty died in 1876, his wife changed location again to Temple Street, where it was renamed “The Temple Bar.” Here it remained for many years, changing management and going through a period of trouble until eventually a German man called Louis Linder bought the lease from the Moriarty estate.

Linder, a popular at what was now known as “Mory’s,” loved music and drew inspiration from his German roots and his time working for Lüchow’s — a favorite in the New York entertainment and restaurant scene. In 1909, Linder encouraged a group of Yale Glee Club singers to perform together one night at Mory’s — a group that eventually adopted the name “Whiffenpoofs.” Audiences would eagerly await the Whiffs’ singing of the new Mory’s anthem, which immortalized Linder and the Temple Bar. “Louis made Mory’s fun,” history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02 illuminates.

In 1912, Mory’s faced redevelopment plans and financial difficulties due to rising rent and strong competition that threatened to close the bar. Linder, whose health was failing him, prepared to go out of business.

Yale students and alumni greeted this with uproar, abhorring the notion that this long-loved establishment might close its doors for good. It had become an integral part of the Yale tradition, and those who loved it were spurred into action, donating to the cause, and in the process, forming the Mory’s Association.

Under the new management, with Linder still in the position of steward, the bar and restaurant became a private club, taking up its new and final residence at 306 York St. — fitted with all the accoutrements that had made the Temple Bar such a beloved place.

Linder died the following year in 1913, though Mory’s continued to grow from its humble beginnings. “It was a kind of informal alumni gathering place,” Gitlin explains, and soon much of the administration and faculty attained membership. “It became part of the Yale life cycle. It had become a place of memories.”

And thus Mory’s carried on for much of the 20th century — allowing women to join as of 1972 — encouraging both alumni and current students to consider the club a home away from home in the heart of New Haven.

Yet as times changed, Mory’s was reluctant to change with them. Gitlin describes how “People came here who came to perceive Mory’s, rightly or wrongly, as elitist Old Yale.”

“Mory’s had a certain identity in the 1910s, and for a long time it was stuck in the Mory’s of 1912,” Basie Bales Gitlin ’10, who is co-writing the official Mory’s history with his father Jay Gitlin, elaborated. As a result of the growing discomfort with Mory’s perceived elitism, student involvement dropped and lifetime memberships — enrollment in which was possible up until 1974 — drained the club of money. Lacking sufficient capital and the appropriate business model to tackle the deficient facilities and operating losses, Mory’s was forced to close in December of 2008.

Much like in 1912, Yale alumni and students viewed the potential end of this 150-year-long era, and the idea of a Yale without Mory’s, as unacceptable. Tom Ketchum, President of the Mory’s Association Board of Governors, details: “People just couldn’t imagine Yale without Mory’s.”

A feasibility plan was soon put forward, setting the ball rolling for renovations and the eventual reintroduction of Mory’s. For the better part of 2009 and early 2010, donations poured in and the building was overhauled, its new, more modern face becoming the symbol for what the club one day hoped to be.

In the fall of 2010, 20 months and just over $3 million later, Mory’s opened its doors once more.

With the club back in business, Mory’s had much to prove. Above all, it had to demonstrate that it could move with the times, that it could adapt and evolve just as the Yale student population had.

The greatest struggle Mory’s faced was where to start.

Given that lack of student involvement in Mory’s was one of the primary reasons for their closure in 2008, student outreach was at the center of their efforts. Jackie Morr, the Mory’s general manager of one year and the first woman to take the post, described the “many moving parts to engage students, to make them feel like a part of the Mory’s family.”

Their initial goal was to try to get a sense of whether the current members were happy, and then build a comfortable space for them. Renovations played a huge role in achieving this goal with the addition of the new “Temple Bar” — a more casual bar area with a relaxed dress code — and the ability to rent space upstairs during the day where free tea and coffee are provided to members all day.

Over time, Mory’s had developed a reputation for sub-par, overpriced club fare. Two years ago, the Mory’s Association approached Jeff Caputo – previously of Scoozzi Trattoria in New Haven (now closed) — to mix things up in the kitchen. Caputo was at first hesitant: “Food was never taken seriously [at Mory’s], and I did things in a different kind of way.” However, as executive chef, Caputo has brought about a new era to the club’s food culture, bringing in elements of his past in Italian cuisine to improve on the Mory’s basics.

But it had to be more than a matter of just improving the quality of Mory’s and its facilities — it had to increase its visibility on Yale’s campus. This meant that not only did it have to re-establish itself with its old customers — alumni, and of course the Whiffenpoofs — but attract current students who once formed the lifeblood of Mory’s.

“We really do want students to take advantage of us,” Mary Hu ’82, head of Mory’s Membership & Marketing Committee, elucidated. Of Mory’s 14,000 members, 2,000 are current Yale graduates and undergraduates. Mory’s has organized a variety of activities to bring in even more students, such as Thursday Trivia nights and Happy Hour pricing during the week, which Hu notes have been met with praise and are especially popular with seniors and graduate students. Following further suggestions from current and past Yalies, Mory’s established a Student Ambassador program that rewards new signups with food credit and Mory’s gear, and set up a private dinner comprising of prominent student leaders — not all members — to work to change current perceptions of Mory’s.

“I had only heard of old Yale alumni and professors going to Mory’s,” Devika Mittal SM ’15, the current president of ISO, says. Mittal was one of the student leaders invited to the dinner, among representatives from YCC, YIRA, BSAY and others. Mittal was impressed by what she saw. “[Mory’s] has been doing an incredible job with outreach,” she said. “It was a very intimate setting, and the food and service was excellent.”

Yet despite these efforts by the Mory’s team, many on campus are still unaware of these initiatives. “I haven’t heard of any at all,” Celine Cuevas TD ’15 says. “I’ve never even been to Mory’s.”

The club’s management is not blind to this reality. “There are still a lot of students who don’t know what Mory’s is,” Ketchum admits. Rather than give up, Mory’s has made a conscious effort to rise to the challenge.

One of these concerted pushes was the release of the new reduced-price student menu at the beginning of this year, a move that has encouraged a 35% increase in student membership this semester alone. Morr determines: “It’s about understanding what people want, developing relationships and what they’d like to see.”

“There are a lot of uncharted waters, and we’re just trying to sail through and build momentum,” Caputo confirms.

Across the board, the team behind Mory’s is united in its vision in bringing together the best parts of traditional Old Yale Mory’s with New Yale, each one of them wholly dedicated to the cause they love so much. Though they will have to continue to fight the highly exclusive, WASP-y image long associated with it, in many ways, moving with the times is in line with the true mission of Mory’s. Basie Gitlin argues that “Mory’s history of tradition isn’t stuffy; it’s not about tradition in the sense of being ponderous and old. Its history is one of evolving with the student population.”

Mory’s ultimate aim is to remain much as it always was: a place to create memories. Because, as Jay Gitlin observes: “Continuity resides at Mory’s.”

 

 

Comments