features

The new college try

After years of anticipation, Yale’s new residential colleges are open—and the process of building a community begins.

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

It was twilight in the main courtyard of Pauli Murray College on a Sunday in September. People were emerging from supper in the dining hall and making s’mores over open fires. But we were also waiting expectantly: tonight, Pauli Murray was going to reveal its new intramural team nickname, a week after students had voted on it in a college-wide election.

Suddenly, out came a dozen students in lemur costumes, performing the college chant, complete with dance moves: “P-A to the U-L-I / Yo Murray / Pauli Murray all the time.” It was official: we were the Lemurs. (Say Pau-LI MUR-ray slowly and you’ll get it.)

This was the kind of event I’d had in mind when I transferred my affiliation as a college fellow to Pauli Murray from Ezra Stiles—itself once one of the “new” colleges. I was eager to see how a new community would be built from the ground up. I hadn’t predicted dancing lemurs, but here we were.

Just across a picturesque walkway from Pauli Murray, the denizens of Benjamin Franklin College had initially decided to call their teams the Lightning, in recognition of Franklin’s famous experiments with electricity. But now, “we’re having an interesting discussion about that,” says head of college Charles Bailyn ’81. “Since Murray chose the Lemurs, there’s been an upswell in interest in calling ourselves the Turkeys, because Benjamin Franklin advocated that the turkey should be our national bird.” (The issue was unresolved at press time.)

Choosing nicknames was among the easier tasks as Yale’s two new residential colleges opened this fall. Heads of college, deans, operations managers, and dining hall staff had to build all the functions of a college—academic advising, food, clubs and teams, social activities, and more—from scratch. “Everything you do is a new thing, so it takes a lot of thinking and effort to get it up and running,” says Bailyn. “By next year it’ll be a tradition.”

 

Ten years after the university first announced its plan to expand undergraduate enrollment, the new colleges are at last up and running, and the whole campus is adjusting to a gravitational shift up Prospect Street. A 6.7-acre triangular site that once contained a handful of academic and office buildings is now housing 761 students, putting a lot more people into the area around Science Hill, Ingalls Rink, and the Yale Health Center. By 2020, about 450 students will live in each college, allowing an expansion of Yale College from 5,400 to as many as 6,200 students and relieving overcrowding in the other colleges a bit.

The construction of the first new colleges at Yale in 55 years could have been an occasion to rethink residential living for the twenty-first century. But the university felt differently: the rooms, the amenities, and even the architectural style of Franklin and Murray were consciously conceived to be as close to the existing colleges as possible. (Of course, the older colleges, most of them built between the world wars, have all been renovated in the last 20 years, so they are themselves a bit more twenty-first-century than they may at first appear.) As President Peter Salovey ’86PhD describes it, when you’re visiting Franklin and Murray, “you feel like you’re at Yale. You realize you’re in a space you’ve never seen before, but it feels familiar.”

The job of making the colleges feel like Yale fell to Robert A. M. Stern ’65MArch, former dean of the School of Architecture, whose firm was selected in 2008 to design the colleges. Stern is well known for his facility with historical styles, and his team jumped into the project with enthusiasm. They underwent a thorough study of Yale’s existing colleges, most of them designed by architect James Gamble Rogers, Class of 1889. They consulted Rogers’s papers in the Yale library and built an archive of his details and strategies. “We had to really get into Rogers’s head,” says project architect Melissa DelVecchio ’98MArch.

As a result, the new colleges largely match the materials, scale, and proportions of Rogers’s buildings. An often-cited example is the way the buildings are arranged around a series of courtyards: the buildings are taller on the north sides of the courtyards and shorter on the south sides, to allow more sunlight to enter.

Stern and his team also absorbed Rogers’s penchant for quirky, romantically irregular spaces and forms. Rogers designed his modern Yale buildings to mimic the buildings of Oxford and Cambridge, which had accrued additions and alterations over centuries. Franklin and Murray have some of the same qualities: small courtyards, some triangular in shape and some two stories off the ground; asymmetrical towers that look like they were assembled by a committee; and seemingly random “breaks” and repairs in the leaded glass windows.

The basic Yale College residential suite, with bedrooms off a shared common room, is preserved in Franklin and Murray, although with more single bedrooms than some of the older colleges have. Because the new colleges will be used for summer programs, the common rooms in the suites come equipped with sofas and chairs. As in the older colleges, there are a few suites most students can only dream of, like the seven-person duplex in the south tower of Franklin with a double-height living room.

Stern’s team also had to contend with some particularly twenty-first-century challenges. They kept the traditional Yale entryway system, with suites organized around stairwells so that students passing each other on the stairs every day form community bonds. But fire codes require two means of exit—and they’re more stringently enforced than they used to be. Rogers merely connected all his entryways in the attic. Stern’s firm had to connect the entryways via internal corridors. “There are hallways,” says Stern, “a bit longer than you see in most Yale residential buildings, but not like you find in a typical dormitory on a typical campus. Students have told us that this approach extended their social networking capacities.”

Also not on the agenda a hundred years ago: barrier-free access. Unlike most residential buildings at Yale, every room in the new colleges is wheelchair-accessible. Students with temporary or permanent disabilities can get keycard access to the 22 passenger elevators in the new colleges. (For everyone else, a suite on the fourth floor still means a daily exercise regimen.)

The new colleges, unlike the old, are also fully equipped with air conditioning—making them attractive housing for summer programs. Although public spaces are air-conditioned during the academic year, the air conditioning in student rooms is turned off, out of a sense of fairness to students in the older colleges. (Some students discovered during a September heat wave that they could prop their suite doors open and import some chilled air from the hallway.)

Public spaces in the new colleges are also modeled closely on earlier Yale precedents. Since Murray and Franklin are larger than any of the other colleges, their dining halls had to accommodate more people. To keep the scale relatively intimate, Stern’s team included smaller, ancillary spaces adjacent to the main dining space to handle the extra people. Each college has a spacious, comfortable library with a window overlooking the dining hall, and a common room like those in the old colleges.

Underground, Murray and Franklin share the same kinds of activity spaces that were added to the other residential colleges in their recent renovations: an exercise room, music practice rooms, game rooms, and butteries (Yale-speak for “snack bars”). They also boast the best dance rehearsal space on campus, a recording studio, and—in part because of the colleges’ location next to the Farmington Canal Trail, a popular path for bicyclists—a bicycle repair shop.

 

From the beginning, Yale College students expressed skepticism about the two colleges’ location, which seemed far from what most undergraduates consider the center of the campus. The site had been chosen back in 2000 as part of a campus master plan, the idea being that new colleges would help enliven the north side of the campus, which contained classrooms and laboratories for science but no undergraduate housing.

I’ve spoken to students in Franklin and Murray who do find the colleges somewhat remote, particularly if their classes are not mainly on Science Hill. The distance from the main gate of Murray to Sterling Memorial Library is nearly half a mile, about two thirds farther than from the main gate of Timothy Dwight. Pauli Murray head Tina Lu says Yale’s shuttle bus schedules should be revised with particular adjustments to support social life on the weekends and evenings. But for the most part she thinks that “the notion of close and far is one of culture, not distance,” and that the presence of the new colleges will change students’ mental maps over time.

Bailyn agrees, and says he’s already seen it happening. “On Friday or Saturday evening, you see a steady stream of foot traffic on Prospect Street now that didn’t used to be there.”

Aside from the distance question, the colleges have gotten good reviews from students. “I think they did a great job of integrating the architecture with that of the rest of the campus,” says Merrick Black ’19, who transferred from Davenport and is now president of Pauli Murray’s college council. Black says that since the colleges are still underpopulated, she got a larger and nicer room than she would have had as a junior in Davenport.

In the world of architecture, the two critics who have published their opinions thus far took very different views. Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin ’84MEnvD, noting that Stern had taken on a tough assignment in emulating Rogers, concluded that he “has neared Rogers’s standard without matching him. The new colleges are strong, city-enhancing buildings . . . yet Stern’s traditionalist architecture . . . is uneven in quality, wavering between self-assured reinterpretation and over-the-top eclecticism.” Writing in the New Criterion, architect Peter Pennoyer called the colleges “a remarkable achievement of design,” opining that “the architecture seems fresh and yet indelibly connected to the DNA of the original colleges—essentially an extension of their spirit.” 

Whatever else there is to be said about the colleges, nearly everyone is puzzled by the large, curiously blank walls that face the vacant corner lot at Sachem and Prospect Streets. Stern and the university administration originally imagined that those walls would be hidden behind an undergraduate theater that would be built on that corner—a project that would both fill a pressing campus need and bring more foot traffic up Prospect Street. The theater project has yet to be funded, however, and the university says there are no immediate plans to build anything there. For now, the lot has been equipped with picnic tables for customers of the food trucks parked across the street at lunchtime. “I personally would like to see a theater there,” says Stern. “But I’m just the architect.”

In early October, the colleges were dedicated in a ceremony that featured the project’s most prominent donors: Charles Johnson ’54, who gave $250 million for the colleges; Josh Bekenstein ’80 and G. Leonard Baker ’64, for whom the main courtyards of each college are named; and Edward Bass ’67, whose name is on the new complex’s 190-foot signature tower. The event celebrated the construction of the buildings. But nobody forgot the larger purpose: to make a Yale College education possible for another 200 young people every year. 

“We attract the best students from all over the globe, diverse in ethnicity, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, interests, and talents,” said Yale College dean Marvin Chun at the dedication. “I’m so pleased that more students can now come to this place, share their gifts with their peers, learn from each other, and go out into the world with a sense of fellowship and service and gratitude that they learned from living in these beautiful spaces.”

Meanwhile, the students and staff go about the pioneering work of making those spaces a community. When I last spoke to Bailyn, he was awaiting the results of the intramural ping-pong quarterfinals. “It turns out Benjamin Franklin is really good at ping-pong,” he said. And Tina Lu related events from the weekend: children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman ’63JD had been to Pauli Murray for a college tea, and on Saturday, Lu had persuaded the tent supplier for the college dedication to leave the tent up one extra night—so students could have a pajama party in the courtyard. Lu herself read the bedtime story.  

1 comment

  • Ann Larson
    Ann Larson, 9:53am November 10 2017 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I was hoping to find and share the picture (from print mag) of the entrance to Pauli Murray with a group of female theologians for whom she is an icon. Anyway I can do that?

    Ann Larson
    BR 74

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