Old Campus is heavy with the weight of centuries of Yale. Since the University first laid claim to the ground of New Haven, buildings have occupied this space — but Yale continuously modernizes, forever outgrowing itself, discarding buildings every generation as it reinvents itself, buying new buildings with the enthusiasm of little kids going back-to-school shopping. Many of these buildings have long ago disappeared, their footprints fading away, forgotten but never truly annihilated because construction is earth’s materials and human labor and no energy is ever fully destroyed. Buildings are born of someone’s desire, designed for someone’s use — and so buildings take on souls and attitudes. Buildings have personalities, and when they are destroyed, buildings leave behind ghosts, benevolent or jealous or defeated, or maybe just disappointed. Today, Old Campus is scattered with architectural corpses and the spirits hovering over them.
Here are the ghosts you can meet on Old Campus.
Connecticut Hall is still standing, but he is only a shell of who he once was. Completed in 1752, he held the first Yale dorm and then the Yale College Dean’s Office; today he is the philosophy department. He used to stand arm-in-arm with his brothers along Old Brick Row, a string of buildings stretching down Old Campus, parallel to today’s Phelps Gate. Yale destroyed the rest of the Old Brick Row, reluctantly sparing Connecticut Hall when alumni pleaded for his life. But Connecticut Hall was never meant to stand alone. He is used to being surrounded with friends and now he juts out into Old Campus awkwardly — alive but alone. Yale threw McClellan Hall onto Old Campus hoping to give Connecticut Hall a friend, but he remains empty inside. In the 1950s, Yale gutted Connecticut Hall, carving out his entrails, preparing to mummify him, callously renovating him as if lobotomizing a troublesome relative, because if he was still around he might as well be useful. Connecticut Hall does not have the privilege of a time of death because his body is still alive, even if he has been forced out of himself.
The Yale Fence
The Yale Fence is perhaps the most frightening ghost of all because he is more alive than ever. The physical Yale Fence was removed by 1888, but his ghost cackles, unconcerned and liberated from materiality. He is now immortal, intangible — not a place but an ideology.
From 1833 to 1888, every student at Yale perched on that fence, the essential gathering space. The Yale Fence was foundational to the Yale community, but he also structured a hierarchy between students, which sounds like the kind of thing that happens when your ideal social scene means just sitting in a straight line. The Yale Fence supported a companionate exclusion, a socializing elitism, a friendliness within stratification.
The last pieces of the Yale Fence were removed to make way for Osborn Hall — but today, the Yale Fence has metastasized into the fortress of buildings that separates Old Campus from the New Haven Green. Now people live in the barrier between Yale and the world. We don’t sit in straight lines for fun — but we’re not looking out at the street or the New Haven Green anymore, either. There’s nothing wrong with socializing over a meal in the dining hall or frisbee in the courtyards or tea in a friend’s suite. But I wonder if the Yale Fence still surrounds us even here, his splintery wooden rails always one step behind you.
The Yale Fence is something bold and exciting, because he is friendship and ambition and the satisfaction of finally earning your spot on the corner. But he is self-absorbed, opportunistic, a community built on division, a network built upon barriers.
That spirit still haunts Yale. We don’t just live behind a fence: we live behind gates and walls. It’s fun, and I’m proud to live within such formidable and breathtaking architecture. But we live perched on a constructed elitism, and the ghost of the Yale Fence passes by, whispering that if you don’t lean forward into clubs and coffees and internships, you’ll fall endlessly backwards.
Poor Osborn Hall. He didn’t ask to replace the Yale Fence. He didn’t mean to thrust himself into the infrastructure of the university — yet when Osborn Hall first opens his big dumb eyes and looks around, he sees scowls, he sees glares, he sees that he is hated before he knows what hatred means.
Osborn Hall is insecure and tries too hard. He shows up to the first day of school in this absolutely ridiculous Romanesque style and all the other buildings stare at him with their perfect brick faces. Osborn thinks he’s better than everyone else anyway. He decides to look out at the street instead, expecting the world to love his gratuitous grandiosity while the other Yale buildings turn their backs on him and the city.
Because he’s facing a busy corner, and so round inside, it’s too noisy to hold a lecture in Osborn Hall. But he can still hear a professor curse and students complain inside of him, he still hears the architects on the street whispering about tearing him down.
Osborn Hall wanted to prove that he could replace the Yale Fence, and he dies knowing he failed. He is empty with shame, finds himself friendless and abandoned. Yale tears him apart while he’s still relatively young, putting the poor building out of his misery and replacing him with something that conforms. Osborn Hall was Yale’s embarrassing teenage phase, and the University wants to delete all the photos. The University was still growing up, still figuring itself out, using Old Campus to experiment with new identities and new buildings.
Osborn Hall still haunts Old Campus, watching with sullen jealousy as Bingham Hall takes his place. Osborn Hall is the cold presence of unburied mistakes and sleep-stealing regrets. His voice floats into meetings asking, “Are you sure that’s a good idea? What if no one likes it? What if no one comes? What if you fail? What if you don’t belong here? What if you’re an excessively ornate Richardsonian Romanesque building with a noisy lecture hall?”
But Dwight Hall still stands, you say!
That’s the Old Library, renamed for Dwight Hall’s disembodied soul. Originally, Dwight Hall referred to a separate building next to Alumni Hall, which has been replaced by Lanman-Wright Hall, or L-Dub. Now there’s just empty space there. There’s a bench, sure, but only so many people can use a bench at once.
Maybe you’ve heard the legend that Mrs. Harkness couldn’t see Harkness Tower because Dwight Hall blocked her sightlines, and so they tore it down. Today that is the only building-less spot on the perimeter of Old Campus. Dwight Hall didn’t do anything wrong — he was just in the way of bigger and better things.
But Dwight Hall’s soul was never tied to a building. He finds a home in the Old Library, replaced by Sterling in the 1920s, and lives on. The spirit of Dwight Hall — at the time, an “independent, nonprofit educational and religious organization,” according to its website – is a thing too kind and strong to be limited to a physical space. Dwight Hall has a conscience, an identity; he’s not dependent on the institution.
But what does it mean for service and leadership to move into a library? What does it mean to serve from the mind and not the soul? Today, the Old Library building is officially known as Dwight Hall and Memorial Chapel. Why does Yale have a chapel in an old library, and have a library in a cathedral? Buildings at Yale are always on the move.
Dwight Hall isn’t vindictive or vengeful. He’s settled into his new self. But his old building leaves behind a vacancy like a gap-toothed smile. An emptiness like the grassy patch beneath a tombstone still stands witness to the space where an innocent building was sacrificed in favor of a donor’s aesthetics.
When I was in middle school, my dad finally let us adopt a cat: Marcie. About a week after we got her, Marcie stopped eating. My mom took her to the vet, who saw a “blockage” in Marcie’s stomach, so she probably ate some yarn or a lego or something. During emergency surgery they called my mom: that “blockage” was actually cancer that had already spread throughout Marcie’s entire digestive system.
They put Marcie down during surgery. We never got to say goodbye.
And we had only had Marcie for a week.
That’s how I feel about Durfee’s. His death is not a massive architectural loss, it doesn’t shatter the infrastructure of my life like the death of a parent or a best friend. But it’s a premature loss, an unexpected loss, the first loss I’ve known for myself. We left for the pandemic and when we returned Durfee’s was gone. His familiar body, once warm with chicken tenders and Awake chocolate, now lays lifeless beneath Durfee Hall: closed eyes, closed doors, dark windows.
And this year, some weak zombie Durfee’s has emerged as the package center possesses Durfee’s dead body. It’s sad and empty, a box full of boxes. It’s an extension of an Amazon warehouse.
The Bow Wow, the implied reincarnation of Durfee’s, is subsumed into the glorious monopolizing belly of the Schwarzman Center. It is glittery and touchscreen-y and inhumanly clean, slippery-modern like a tech company lobby. It’s spectacular, but we still cling to the nostalgia of something quirky and imperfect, carrying on the traditional heartache of Yalies mourning architectural change.
Yale gives us The Bow Wow like a parent in the pet shop at midnight hoping to convince their toddler of a goldfish’s immortality as if death were the inconvenient loss of a replaceable object and not the end of natural life, the final stage in growing up, the fence between us and eternity.
Modernization comes for us all.