A Study in Old Haven - The New Indian Express

A Study in Old Haven

Published: 10th August 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 16th June 2015 10:06 AM

Mostly every soul that crosses the Pond is a victim of Occidental imagination. Their Transatlantic weapon of choice is double-edged conjecture. Those who have known America from a distance attach duality to it.  There’s the America that scrapes into the sky, the colourful America where opportunities and ideas are a combined cause. Then there is the America that eats together in suburban living rooms. All roads that manage to withdraw themselves from New York’s magnetic pull and swing northward into New Haven, Connecticut, transport the traveller through one postcard to another. A two-hour drive from the Big Apple, and one arrives in an orchard of scholastic bloom, home to one of America’s Ivy League schools, Yale.

The natural habitat of Yale, New Haven, was born old. So suggests the patrician snobbery of its stately homes. Centuries after Cornwallis met his match in Yorktown, the reluctant phantoms of colonial imagination continue to linger among the architectural mannerisms of tile-hipped Georgian roofs and Victorian columns erected on manicured porches, each one Englishly detached from the other.

Church of England be, ahem, damned, Yale, charged with academic spirituality, appears to be a Vatican architectural fashionista. Sitting at the crisscross of its main streets are cathedrals that admit their sectoral affinity on signboards, making life easier for anybody possessed with the merest of sacred urges. At the New Haven Green are three of New Haven’s oldest churches. The Center Church is four-columned with pointed spires, with a roof detailed in urns and heavy pediment carving. The United Congregational Church matches it in style, with domed vaults, columns and high steeples. The Trinity Church is an assertive diversion, reinstating serious Gothic revivalism into the architectural equation. These residences of divinity  look out into noiseless stretches of greens upon which the wind has winnowed dried elm leaves.


The oldest chapter in Yale’s storied history is the Connecticut Hall. This three-story brick pile with an assembly line of casement windows is the only one thing that didn’t turn into dust after the American Civil War (1861-1865). The old campus area extends over the Phelps Gate, an arched welcome in stone beneath which wrought-iron lanterns (electrified though) pendulate to the song of breeze. Ordinarily, one would expect the oldest segment of a campus to announce its supremacy to stand out in the crowd. But not in Yale. Architect James Gamble Rogers, who lent the prowess of his craft to the campus in the 1900s, was an ageist in favour of the ancient. He used steel frames, burying them in gothic revival style stone-cladding; some of the buildings were acid-washed to stimulate age. Over decades, the old structures camouflaged within the older ones were reduced to touristy trivia.

Legend has it that Rogers wanted to plant a gothic cathedral in the centre, but Yale’s secular fraternity put its foot down. He went ahead and designed one anyway. Ergo, cloaked in the vestments of impassive sanctity is the Sterling Memorial Library. A 15-floor- high ivory slab has been carved and chiselled in the shape of a thousand gargoyles, reliefs and inscriptions—the sun sets on its shoulders, the moon melts behind its back. The inside smells a little like raw and sulfurous stone that is being worked on with a drill. On passing beneath its arched nave entrance, one reaches an early Renaissance altar piece mural where two aisles stocking catalogues are waiting to be walked down. There are heavy stone and metal engravings on high ceilings and reading rooms designed like mosaic refectories.

A few blocks away exists another library, from another universe. The Beinecke is set on a granite plaza. The books are encased in wine cellar discipline, in a square pillar in the centre, and are kept warm in the glow of a few thousand bulbs. The library has no windows; light is a guerilla among the Vermont marble walls. Beinecke is home to one of the world’s surviving 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles. 

Across the cemented courtyard off Beincke shines Woolsey Hall, dressed in the regality of circular domes, chandeliers, Victorian staircases and carpets that run their length; this is Yale’s primary recital hall. Like most of its dining halls, this too is furnished with paintings of those whom Yale remembers and celebrates. And, each time a Hogwarts reference is made in idle conversation, they seem uneasy in their state of limbo, always hung high enough to be looking down at the world. 

The Linsley Chittenden lecture hall has an overbearing presence, with stained glass windows and wooden visages of long dead philosophers brooding from walls. Of course, if one happens to be seated on a bench with a pugnacious ‘Beat Harvard’ scribble, the restoration of faith in Yale’s humanity, away from the confusion of its overbearing historical snobbery is restored. A bit.

Just outside the hall is a secret that’s told and untold like in  a game of Chinese whispers. Not everyone is welcome at the Skulls & Bones building, which is the home of one of Yale’s known secret societies. The giant doors have gathered dust and have been shut with finality for effect to the intrusive eye of the passerby—when still remains a secret. A small door on the side is open, inveigling people in, but aside from a narrow set of staircases and chipped stone doors of architectural whimsy leading nowhere—deceptively, there isn’t much to be stumbled upon.

At Yale, the dew dries on wooden benches that are considerately planted around its ingrown wilderness. One can spend hours in solitude on one of these, oblivious of the afternoons wearing on, or of the hedge operatic with the trembling arias of crickets as the sky darkens.

 The shade of Yale blue has spilled over on the small town canvas of New Haven. The sombre robes of serious academia are checked in at the entrance to Mory’s Temple Bar—that celebrates the pub culture of scholarly brotherhood gleaned partly from the pages of the forbidding Yale Book Store nearby. For the neophyte thirsting to be an urban illuminati, Yale’s magic holds beyond the benches and brass statues of scholarly men. Sooner or later, the Yale clock tower summons, imperiously drawing the unfaithful into the bubble of belief.

At Yale, the allegorical ivy is in a league of its own; it is like God. You don’t see it in the wood and the stone; you feel it in values and attitudes. You may doubt its venerable status from time to time, but the collective faith that it inspires transcends your being. A good ol’ Jungian crisis states: “The arch sin of faith is that it forestalls experience.” Yale is steeped in faith, and erects an academic experience around just that faith. Oh Jung, you know nothing.

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