By David Brussat
Sunday, November 28, 2010
The tour of old New Haven and Yale University graciously avoided the sins against beauty represented by New Haven’s famous Mayor Lee of the 1950s, who turned the Elm City into the poster boy for modernist planning and redevelopment in that benighted era. No, ICA & CA board member, architect and tour leader Michael Tyrrell kept the event focused on the many delights to the eye that remain in New Haven, and the tour came off without a hitch on a sunny Saturday afternoon two weekends ago.
The 34 tour attendees were welcomed to New Haven and its New Haven Museum by its education director, Robert Brennan. Mr. Tyrrell introduced us to architectural historian Patrick Pinnell, who, as a specialist in the Yale campus (among many other things), was along to offer in-depth commentary, with many shades of color, on the town’s history and architecture. The two gentlemen held forth in the museum’s rotunda, batting the city’s history back and forth between them, and was joined in summarizing it by Mr. Brennan. And then, after he showed us through the museum’s intriguing exhibits, out into the streets we went.
New Haven was founded as a Puritan theocracy and set around a commons that remains the center of downtown New Haven. We investigated the three churches that line the New Haven Green, including Center Church, where Robert Peck showed us the basement tombs where Benedict Arnold’s first wife is interred.
Mr. Pinnell led us through an ornate gate (what isn’t ornate at Yale … don’t answer that question!) into the yard of one of Yale’s oldest colleges. To our left sat Connecticut Hall, New Haven’s oldest building. Before us beyond the greensward was Harkness Hall. Ornate? That’s its picture in the dictionary definition of ornate!
We saw the Skull & Bones Society, but did not try to get in. We did go behind it, where a private garden is visible to public eyes. As you enter the garden, to the right is the predecessor to the Yale Art & Architecture School, which we would soon visit. It’s Collegiate Gothic facade reeked of James Gamble Rogers, who designed much of Yale’s early 20th Century reconstruction. The old house of architecture gave off a feeling of the heebie-jeebies, as if it still resents the direction taken by architecture since World War II.
We had lunch at the Yale Art & Architecture Building, a sad and sinister structure designed by Paul Rudolph, newly augmented with an addition by Charles Gwathmey that, if anything, gives the original a run for its money in the departments of turgid sterility. Let’s hope its fire-suppression systems are adequate! After lunch we viewed New Haven from a rooftop terrace. Like many such modern buildings, its greatest joys are that views from the top do not include their host. Speaking of hosts, we were protected throughout by the school’s special-events coordinator, Richard De Flumeri, who stood in graciously for Dean Stern, who was in the Sunshine State.
Architectural historian Patrick Pinnell, board member and tour maestro Michael Tyrrell, Chapter President John Margolis, and our tour sponsor, Gary Restaino, of Luxbaum Windows
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We saw a lot more of Yale, including its main library and a number of buildings just off the main campus, ending up at Woolsey Hall, where Kito Covington allowed us to sit in on a practice session in which the majestic Newbury Organ was exercised with exalted excellence. Your awe-struck correspondent’s mouth stood agape at the extensive sculptural ornament that captured our eyes and stole our hearts at every turn.
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Finally, as dusk fell apace, after we parted ways with those who needed to make their way home, we strolled down Hillhouse Avenue, a collection of fine old houses on the National Register of Historic Places.
On departure, we bade adieu to Mr. Tyrrell, who grows more excellent in his tours. Later, he pointed out that “after many years of visiting New Hven and Yale” – he grew up in nearby Fairfield – “I felt a catharsis, a relief at sharing my passion for this place with a fine crowd of like thinkers and devotees.” He adds, “I look forward to the next opportunity – the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts beckons.” We look forward to that, too.