Guests and visitors who walk into the lobby of New Haven’s newest hotel, Graduate New Haven, will be greeted by imagery of Handsome Dan and the infamous Mory’s Cup everywhere they look. If it were not for the neon Hotel Duncan sign attached to the building’s facade, passersby would likely be unaware that a historic rooming house for low-income New Haveners once stood in the same spot.

Graduate New Haven held its grand opening on Oct. 3 after the Graduate Hotels division of Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners bought the property in August 2017. The full opening of the 72-room hotel occurred Thursday after a few more days of training for the hotel’s staff, according to general manager Dominic Ruggieri. The establishment takes the place of the former Hotel Duncan — a 92-room part-hotel, part-single-room-occupancy boarding house that rented rooms for $200 a week. The real estate deal displaced dozens of low-income residents and closed the last remaining boarding house in downtown New Haven, according to New Haven resident and civil rights lawyer Alex Taubes LAW ’15.

“We saw the tradition at Yale, and not just at Yale, but in New Haven, and it’s so strong and that really goes into what our company does,” Ruggieri told the News. “We really try to take pieces of both the university and the local community and build them into the hotel.”

The accommodations are a part of the national Graduate Hotels brand centered in college towns across the country. Each location of the boutique chain attempts to mirror and exude the local heritage of each university and surrounding community in which it resides. The brand was founded in 2014, according to the company’s website.

Graduate New Haven notably incorporates many Yale traditions and contains homages to famous Yale alumni. Throughout the hotel, a distinct blue and white color scheme is incorporated into every detail. In addition, a border runs throughout the property, showing the silhouettes of Yale alums, according to Ruggieri. On the first floor sit two libraries, one named for baseball executive Theo Epstein ’95 and the other called “Stirling Library,” a play on the University’s own Sterling Library.

As for food and drink, the hotel renovated the Old Heidelberg bar and restaurant in the building’s basement. The bar had closed in the early 1990s, according to a story in the New Haven Register. The lobby will feature a Poindexter Coffee — a cafe brand only found in Graduate Hotel locations — serving breakfast food and beverages. Most notably, two pay phone booths stand in the lobby, providing a direct line to two of the famous New Haven pizza restaurants: Pepe’s and Modern Apizza. Guests will be able to place an order in one of the phone booths, and the hotel will handle the order for the customer.

While the hotel has no formal ties to the University, Ruggieri said it “wants to be productive with the University” and invited students to study at Poindexter.

The hotel’s opening, however, has had to square with the space’s past and its implications in New Haven.

“I toured the Graduate New Haven last week, and it’s a beautiful space. I hope it succeeds and I hope both students and locals take advantage of the coffee shop, restaurant, and public spaces it has to offer,” Eli Sabin ’22, candidate for Ward 1 Alder, told the News. “However, the construction of the Graduate Hotel came at a significant cost to the community of low-income residents who lived in the Hotel Duncan, which the Graduate Hotel replaced when it bought the building. Going forward, we need to do much more to make sure that our economic development strategy is focused on lifting New Haven residents out of poverty so that our low-income neighbors don’t get kicked to the curb whenever a developer shows up in town with buckets of cash.”

Last Thursday, the Eli Sabin for Ward 1 Facebook account reposted the New Haven Register’s story on the hotel’s opening with a comment endorsing the hotel and its amenities. Shortly thereafter, Taubes commented on the post, criticizing Sabin’s comment for lacking the appropriate historical context of the Hotel Duncan and reminding Sabin that it was “one of the few places that provided SROs to poor people in New Haven.” Sabin later edited the post and gave kudos to Taubes for pointing out the mistake.

When the Graduate deal was announced — after the Hotel Duncan had operated for 123 years — AJC Capital Partners hired the local Glendower Group — a non-profit affiliate of the Housing Authority of New Haven — to relocate 45 boarders, some of whom had been had been living at the Duncan long term. According to Nicole Stimitz of Derris, a New York-based public relations firm that works with Graduate Hotels, all of the SRO tenants that wanted to stay in downtown New Haven were able to do so. The project came under further fire when it signed a moratorium with the City of New Haven that discontinued SROs in the building in April 2018 as it moved to become a higher-grade hotel.

“The Duncan is really the poster child for displacement downtown,” Taubes told the News. “The Duncan is actual displacement of people who are at the very bottom of the economic totem pole.”

According to Taubes, the boarders at the Duncan shared a strong sense of community and were mostly elderly at the time of the deal.

“It was incredibly important to the company that the transition was smooth, including paying for moving expenses and security deposits. In each market it enters, Graduate Hotels seeks to respect local communities and provide spaces for all to feel welcome,” said Stimitz.

Both Stimitz and Ruggieri pointed to the hotel’s upcoming events open to the public as a way that it will engage with the New Haven community. The establishment will host an “Apizza Bash” featuring New Haven pizza scene and food critic Steve Dolinsky on Oct. 23 and a “Legends of New Haven” event highlighting the Elm City’s spookiest stories on Oct. 26.

Graduate New Haven is located at 1151 Chapel Street.

Jose Davila IV | jose.davilaiv@yale.edu