Every residential college master can boast about famous house guests. Jackie Kennedy Onassis slept in the Timothy Dwight master’s house. New York Gov. George Pataki ’67 spent the night in Branford. And A. Bartlett Giamatti, a former president of Yale, reportedly said the Calhoun master’s living room was his favorite space in the University.
But besides eminent visitors, Yale masters’ houses have little in common. Venture outside the room where master’s teas are held, and the differences in interior architecture, art and household paraphernalia become apparent. Through the potted plants, family photographs and empty soda cans, the masters — or their spouses — show bits of personality that are invisible in a lecture hall.
Timothy Dwight Master Robert Thompson’s house looks lived-in. Piles of papers cover the surfaces in his office and dining room, and at least two open soda cans sit on the furniture. The mess is perhaps a tribute to dorm-life; after all, students spend a lot of time in Thompson’s house. Master T — as he is known to students — teaches a graduate-level seminar in his dining room, and he hosts parties in his living room for students in the college.
“They can get pizza in that area and then boogie all over this area,” said Thompson, who noted that women were better dancers.
When Thompson hosts parties, he uses a dumbwaiter to transport box after box of pizza upstairs.
“My beloved aides heave ho, and we get it done with almost military precision,” Thompson said.
Other visitors to the house include Chubb Fellows, professionals honored by Yale for their contribution to public service. Thompson heads the Chubb Fellowship, and he has covered his walls with pictures of recent fellows. Among them are John Kerry ’66, Carlos Fuentes and Frank Gehry — “the world’s most exciting architect,” according to Thompson.
A professor of African and African-American art, Thompson has decorated his house according to his interests. In one corner hangs a picture of hip-hop artists breakdancing in his house. Next to it is a framed paper with the words “Master T” scrawled in the “wild style of hip-hop writing.” Other walls display artifacts, sculptures and posters of art shows Thompson has organized. The house has nine libraries which hold countless books on African and African-American dance, music and art. One is devoted entirely to tango.
But Thompson’s interests go beyond his area of expertise. He played football as a schoolboy in West Texas, and he is a devoted fan of the Yale team. On one mantelpiece, Thompson displays signed photographs of Yale students who went on to play professional football.
Across the room, a large poster features another sports star: Muhammad Ali.
“He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee,” Thompson said, quoting Ali’s own words. “He’s one of my idols. He’s one of my culture heroes.”
Thompson has left his mark in nearly every corner of floor space and square foot of wall space. Master of TD since 1978, he has had over 26 years to arrange, decorate and collect. After nearly three decades, he said, picking a favorite room of his house would be like picking a favorite son (though he later admitted he has only one son).
While Thompson, who is divorced, can decorate as he pleases, Stiles Master Stuart Schwartz’s house bears the stamp of his wife, Spanish and Portuguese professor Maria Jordan.
Jordan, who hails from Puerto Rico, has stationed plants and flowers throughout their house. A palm plant in the living room stands taller than Schwartz himself.
“It’s not real,” he whispered.
The Puerto Rican graphic artwork on the walls also reflects Jordan’s tastes. Even the couple’s mini daschund, whom they named “Bandy” after the Portugese prophet Bandarra, evokes Jordan’s interest in prophesy. When Jordan has time to cook, the house smells of asopao — a Caribbean dish that Schwartz described as in between a soup and a stew.
Some students may call Stiles ugly, but Schwartz is proud of his building.
“The only colleges built by a distinguished architect are Morse and Stiles,” Schwartz said. “As buildings architecturally they’re in a class by themselves. The other buildings are a rip-off of Cambridge.”
Still, Schwartz said that architect Eero Saarinen made some mistakes. For one thing, the house receives little natural light, and the dark wood floors and cabinets exacerbate the problem.
“On a dark day you couldn’t open up your closet and see what color your clothes are,” Schwartz said, adding that he has tried to brighten the house with track lighting, beige furniture and light carpets.
Schwartz’s house, built in the modern style, has large rooms and a somewhat impersonal atmosphere. Branford Master Steven Smith’s house, built 30 years earlier in the Gothic style, has a different feel.
“The rooms are a lot smaller,” his wife, Susan Smith, said. “It’s sort of warm: the colors that are here, the woodwork that’s here.”
Susan Smith, who works at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, is the interior decorator. The art, created by local professionals, is an impressive array of pottery, glasswork, tiles, decorative plates and contemporary paintings. On the dining room wall hangs an eight-foot-wide painting of Big Bend National Park in Texas. Susan Smith also collects miniature chairs, ceramic pears and sayo plants.
As for Steven Smith, the house reflects his recreational interests more than his academic pursuits. An avid Yankees fan, Smith keeps a small baseball pinball machine on his desk. His favorite room is the den, a small space with dark brown wood, forest green sofas and a big television set. He enjoys watching the news, old movies and — of course — summer baseball. Around Smith’s neck hang two gold pendants: the Hebrew word for “life” and the Yankees logo.
“The three Y’s: Yahweh [God], Yankees and Yale,” Steven Smith said, smiling. “My three values. The three things I love the most.”
Several masters have other, “real” homes in Connecticut, where they lived before their appointments. But the Smiths, who sold their old house, consider Branford their permanent address.
“This is our home,” Steven Smith said. “It’s not just university, you know, official, property. It expresses our tastes.”