Much of Yale’s storied past is buried far from where the eye can see it — in steam tunnels and tombs, archives and anthologies. One can get a glimpse of this history by digging through dusty boxes in Sterling Memorial Library or working in the basement of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yet, for all this hidden history, there still exists a relic of the past that is accessible to all — or at least all Branford College students.
The Vanderbilt suite, otherwise known as VC-22, hearkens back to a bygone age. From its chandelier to its marble fireplace, the suite’s lavish decoration points to its storied past. Between the suite’s legendary history and striking beauty — only enhanced by the recent 2002 renovation — the Vanderbilt suite is the hidden gem of undergraduate housing.
Like many other buildings on campus, Vanderbilt Hall is named for its wealthy sponsors, but its foundation is one of family tragedy. William Henry Vanderbilt, who attended Yale in the early 1890s, contracted typhoid fever from a water pump and died during his junior year. His father, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, constructed Vanderbilt Hall in 1894 as a memorial to his son and donated it to the University.
During construction, one room was designed more lavishly than the rest, resulting in the Vanderbilt suite.
Its current residents, ethnic counselors Abena Asare ’05 and Connie Chan ’05 are aware of their good fortune; Asare called it “the nicest room” she will ever live in.
“It feels like a privilege to live in this room. I didn’t even realize it was inhabited daily,” Chan added.
Indeed, the room is dramatically different than the other rooms in Vanderbilt. With its stunningly detailed dark wood paneling and built-in shelving and storage cupboards, it is immediately arresting upon entrance.
“It was so beautiful walking in at the beginning of the year,” Chan reminisced.
Asare said she and Chan were at first hesitant to furnish the suite, saying they knew their Salvation Army couch and Wal-Mart futon would not match the design — not to mention the incongruity of their “beer-stained” rug.
The couch and the futon, however, are a welcome change from the myriad of empty beer cans and liquor bottles that Chan said filled the suite last year, when its inhabitants were a group of freshman boys.
Given the average college students’ furniture budget, it is no surprise that VC-22’s residents find it difficult to do their suite justice.
Ornate paneling runs the perimeter of the common room, only broken up by a bay window that overlooks Old Campus’s central walkway. A large chandelier, suspended from a molded ceiling, casts a warm glow over the common area. The fireplace, though no longer in use, is no less beautiful: sculpted from red marble, it features a fleur-de-lis pattern on its interior.
Three different colors of stained wood create attention-grabbing patterns in the flooring; Chan and Asare punned that when they first moved in, they were both “floored” by the suite’s decadence.
The two are proud of their suite and its history. They joke to each other about being heiresses, and they know all the rumors surrounding the suite — such as the alleged golden shower heads and gold gilding. They also relish the myth that the common room was originally a bedroom, and the bedrooms were originally servants’ quarters.
They like to tell tall tales to the many freshmen who stop by their suite — often sharing the same lore propagated on the campus tour, on which Vanderbilt is a regular stop.
The first of the two tour legends is that Vanderbilt’s architect, Charles Haight, originally intended the building to face the interior of Old Campus. However, during construction the builders poured the foundation while reading the plans upside down, resulting in it unique orientation facing the street.
The second and more popular myth is that Vanderbilt was selected to house the first Yale class of women as an all-female dorm. But a Vanderbilt heir who entered Yale at the same time had other ideas. According to the legend, he supposedly sued Yale for the right to live in the Vanderbilt suite. Yale backed down and he moved in, calling himself the “luckiest man on campus”. The story concludes with the heir finding his future wife among his female neighbors.
A 1998 Yale Alumni magazine article actually debunked these two myths, but for many they are an ingrained part of Yale’s mythology. However, Chan is quick to point out that not everyone is familiar with the room’s fabled past.
“People have heard of it but don’t really affiliate it with the history of Yale or the history of the Vanderbilts,” Chan said. “They’re just impressed with how glamorous it looks.”
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