Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Fittingly, Alexander Cote oversees all the writing about music for this publication. However, if I apply my own inversion to Costello’s words, then “writing about architecture is like dancing about music.” That is to say, perfectly natural and to be encouraged.
In keeping with this week’s theme of the bizarre and the beautiful, I have decided to write about the peculiarities of Yale and New Haven architecture, one of the more bizarre and beautiful aspects of this campus. The bizarre first ensues when freshmen arrive in New Haven: your internal compass immediately shifts without your knowledge. On the Yale campus, west becomes “north” and Davenport college; east becomes “south” and Timothy Dwight College.
Why? This Yale paradigm shift, like so many of the world’s other great evils, is caused by religion.
In New Haven, the Puritans built the first planned city in the New World. As professor Vincent Scully will tell you, the Puritans who founded New Haven felt that they were building Ezekiel’s vision of the “city on a hill:” an idealized community of Jews awaiting God’s arrival from the east. According to my architectural sources, however, the Puritans faced a serious problem. They knew how to build only one type of building, the church. So, in expectation of God, they started by building three churches on the New Haven Green facing east, creating a city with a central east-west axis. If you have ever wondered why New Haven’s church per capita ratio is so high, this is because at first the Puritans didn’t know how to build anything else, just churches. New Haven became a truly revolutionary city when a Puritan finally decided that there must be more to architecture than churches and built the first “meetinghouse.” Thus began the “meetinghouse” building frenzy. Although the Puritans still had no regular houses, no shipwrights and no police stations, at least they could pray and meet. Life seemed perfect.
In their hubris, however, the Puritans overlooked the fact that God also cautioned Ezekiel that “no stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into my sanctuary.” God would sorely punish the Puritans and John Davenport, although that retribution would be some time in coming. For the time being, New Haven’s original churches and meetinghouses with their eastward orientation remained. For a long time, peace reigned between the Protestants of Yale and the descendents of those Puritans who founded New Haven.
But just when the hyper-religious denizens of New Haven were starting to grow fat, lazy and complacent, God sent them a test of faith: the Catholics. New Haven became an Italian stronghold, and conflict grew between the conservative Protestants in the Yale community and the new immigrant population. Professor Scully in his News article of Nov. 6, 1998, describes how these tensions came to a head: “At the end of the Civil War, there was a fearful riot on the Green. People were killed; the crowd came close to storming the college. Instantly, Yale began to fortify itself.”
Yale fortifying itself could mean only one thing: building the Old Campus. Farnam, Lawrance, Phelps, Welch and Bingham halls were built to stand tall as bastions against the hordes of immigration, poverty and Catholicism, representative of all that Yale has stood for these last three centuries. Note that architecture had not progressed significantly in the 300 years since the invention of the meetinghouse. Old campus is still: church, meetinghouse, meetinghouse, door, meetinghouse, L-shaped meetinghouse. For a brief while, the Catholic hordes were tamed.
However, as town-gown relations continued to deteriorate, Yale saw its attractiveness as an educational institution follow a similar course. An emergency session of the Yale Corporation was held in order to decide how to scare the Catholics away once and for all. It was determined that the best way to put the Catholics in their place was to build Yale into one giant cathedral, complete with gargoyles, demons and Latin inscriptions, in order to frighten the Catholics all the way back to ‘Leur Dame’ in Paris. This plan was based on a similar one executed with great success at Trinity College in Hartford by architect William Burges in the 1880s.
The revolutionary architecture of James Gamble Rogers terrified the Catholics, most of whom were born and bred in New Haven, steeped in the Puritan architectural tradition, and had never seen a library, a Harkness tower, or a residential college before. The plan was a resounding success. Thus, religious peace reigns for the moment in New Haven. But the history of Yale, as the architectural record proves, is one of bloody religious warfare. And don’t listen next time you hear a tour guide explaining the history of Yale buildings; you know the real story.
Andrew Smeall is a good Catholic — he won’t look at you during sex.