Construction of new residential colleges an ‘optimistic affirmation of Yale’s future,’ say leaders

President Peter Salovey, President Emeritus Richard C. Levin, and an assembly of university leaders, alumni benefactors, New Haven city officials, and project team members heralded a new chapter for Yale College on April 16 at a celebration of the construction of two new residential colleges near Ingalls Rink.

The site — along the west side of Prospect Street between Trumbull and Sachem Streets and near Hillhouse Avenue and Science Hill — has been an active construction zone since the fall.

“For an architect each new building is an optimistic affirmation of the future,” Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said. That feeling of optimism for Yale’s future was reflected in the smiles and applause during the ceremony near the site.

The colleges will be the first additions to the residential college system since 1961 and will allow Yale College to admit 200 more students per class, an increase of 15% in the undergraduate enrollment, and the first major growth in class size since co-education in 1969. The 12, soon to be 14, residential colleges are at the heart of Yale undergraduate life.

“The tradition of students living in small communities distinguishes and animates the Yale College experience,” Salovey noted. The new colleges “in the most bricks-and-mortar terms, will make ‘a more accessible Yale’ a reality,” he said, referring to one of the key goals he has been pursuing since his inauguration as president.

“In the buildings taking shape just across the street, we can see a future with hundreds more Yale undergraduates each year — students who will be innovators, citizens, leaders,” Salovey said. “They, like our current undergraduates, will be creators and discoverers and fearless thinkers.

“All of us here today have seen the renderings of the beautiful buildings that, two-and-a-half years from now, will stand in splendor. But they will also be teeming with life — with students running to and from class or the lab or the library, rehearsing for dance performances, looking forward to games here at The Whale, taking inspiration from master’s teas, eating lunch in the dining halls with faculty and friends. They will bring new energy into our classrooms, all across New Haven, and around the world,” he added.

A view of the South College Master’s House along Prospect Street. (Courtesy dbox/RAMSA)

Holloway described the project as “an affirmation of the unusual blending one finds at Yale, where the curricular, the co-curricular, and the extracurricular are intertwined, not just in words, but in bricks and mortar, towers and courtyards, seminar rooms and suites, masters’ houses and dining halls.”

Moreover, Holloway said, the new colleges are a clear statement that “Yale’s commitment to the liberal arts remains firmly intact.” Residential colleges, he said, are places “where scientists talk with philosophers; where athletes, engineers, and debaters flock to their friends’ plays, art shows, and comedy sketch performances; where faculty break bread with students to talk about their shared passions; where the unfamiliar becomes familiar through late-night suite discussions about social, cultural, economic, international, and ideological differences.”

In his opening remarks, the Dean noted, “This is an event many years in the planning. If the adage is true that good things come to those who wait, we are in for something special when the doors to these colleges open! As you can tell from the heavy equipment and those amazing construction towers across the street, the ground for this project has already been broken. … I like to think of this moment instead as a celebration.”

President Emeritus Richard C. Levin concurred, saying, “This is an historic day for Yale, and, for some of us, a dream come true.” He recalled that university officers and trustees began to consider building new residential colleges in the late 1990s, along with many other priorities for facilities renovation and construction. He credited Roland Betts ’68, Len Baker ’64, and Ed Bass  ’67 as leaders on the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing board, who helped forge a consensus to grow Yale College.

The mid-block pedestrian walkway between the two colleges. (Courtesy dbox/RAMSA)

“Len argued passionately that no institutional objective could be more important than giving more students the benefit of Yale’s abundant intellectual and physical resources,” Levin said.

In 2007, while Levin was president and Salovey was dean of Yale College, the university formed a faculty/student committee to assess the requirements for expanding the student body by 200 students a year while ensuring the quality of the Yale experience would be undiminished. The final decision to expand Yale College was announced in June 2008, and the university selected Robert A.M. Stern Architects, led by the architecture school dean, to design the two new colleges in September 2008.

The global financial crisis beginning in late 2008 caused the timetable for construction to be extended, but planning and design continued through 2009 and subsequent years. The New Haven Board of Alders unanimously approved the project in January 2011, following on an earlier development agreement between the university and the city. That agreement has already yielded substantial streetscape improvements around the site, funded by Yale and completed for public benefit.

Salovey in September 2013 announced a historic $250 million gift commitment to the university by Charles B. Johnson ’54 for the project, which is entirely gift funded. Johnson’s gift, the largest in Yale history, brought the goal of expanding Yale College within reach and Provost Ben Polak said later in the fall that the university planned complete construction the new colleges by August 2017. Yale reached its fundraising goal for the project in June 2014, enabling work to start on the site earlier this academic year.

At the celebration on April 16, Levin said that Stern “was the obvious and overwhelming choice” by university leaders “to create colleges that reflect the best of Yale tradition.” Describing Stern as the “most exquisite residential architect and one of our leading historians of architecture,” the President Emeritus said the firm’s work “has exceeded even our high expectations.”

Stern said that he and his colleagues see this commission as among the most important they have ever undertaken. Their goal, he noted, was “to perpetuate the undergraduate experience to the fullest by providing additional accommodation that captures in physical form the essential spirit of residential life at Yale.”

“In designing the colleges, we looked to the master architect James Gamble Rogers for inspiration,” Stern commented. “Rogers designed 8 of the 10 original colleges in a sustained campaign between the two world wars. Some of those colleges are Georgian in style; but [other campus structures], including Harkness Memorial Tower, Sterling Library, and Sterling Law School, are Gothic, as are many of the buildings on Science Hill. And so it is my hope that the Gothic design of the new colleges will help visually unite Science Hill and the Central Campus as never before; and by visually uniting the two, we hope to foster greater interdisciplinary exchange as well.”

Architecture is a “Janus-faced art,” according to Stern, one that reifies the good from the past while simultaneously adapting to change. He expressed hope that the placement and design of the new colleges not only will redraw the physical map but will also “bring Yale’s liberal arts and sciences together as never before.”

A view looking north along the Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway. (Courtesy dbox/RAMSA)

Salovey drew from history as he looked to the future of the college and the university with the new colleges. He noted that their opening date in the fall of 2017 will come close to the centennial of the laying of the cornerstone of Harkness Memorial Quadrangle, designed by Rogers (Class of 1889), which represented “a new kind of undergraduate experience, a democratic housing system in which students from all backgrounds would live, eat, and socialize together.” The memorial quadrangle, Salovey pointed out, was itself literally the “groundwork” for the residential college system, as it would soon be transformed into Saybrook and Branford colleges, two of the first eight residential colleges developed in the 1930s.

The President shared words written in 1922 by renowned Yale Professor William Lyon Phelps about the memorial quadrangle, saying they “convey a sentiment that I — that all of us, I imagine — can understand well” as he looks forward to the new colleges:

“The buildings of the Memorial Quadrangle give me happiness every day of my life; for a thousand years to come they will educate, inspire, and civilize those who live within its enclosure and those who come to see it; century after century, people will come from all over to gaze at its mysterious and inspiring towers and walls. It is a joy and delight to me to know that long after my bones are dust, long after I have left this planet, these gracious and lovely buildings will cast their charm.”

The memorial quadrangle and the subsequent residential college system were built thanks to the visionary philanthropy of Edward S. Harkness (Class of 1897), Salovey said. Such places have fostered countless, lifelong ties — the “friendships formed at Yale” as celebrated in the words of the song “Bright College Years,” sung by generations of students and alumni.

Salovey, Holloway, Levin, and Stern all saluted current alumni who carry on the legacy of Harkness in the present day through their vision and support for Yale, especially Johnson, Bass, Baker, and Josh ’80 and Anita Bekenstein, all leadership donors for the project.

Expressing thanks to these and other alumni, parents, and friends who have supported the new colleges, Levin said, “Over the course of a century, your generosity will create 20,000 Yale graduates who will go on to make meaningful contributions in every walk of life. What a powerful legacy; what a magnificent gift to America and the world. We are deeply, deeply grateful.”

While the speakers at the April 16 ceremony described how the project builds on Yale’s history in the present to prepare for the future, Bass also reflected that the day evoked the timeless values that have united and inspired Yale since its founding in 1701. More than just “adding beauty to the once-bleak landscape of Prospect Street,” he said, the new colleges transcend bricks and mortar, and reaffirm an abiding institutional commitment to transmit fundamental values over the generations: the quest for knowledge, the perpetuation of knowledge, the dedication of knowledge to the benefit of humankind, and the pursuit of excellence in every aspect of the Yale experience.

“We love our colleges — justifiably so,” said Bass to those assembled, a sentiment echoed by Salovey when he said, “In the case of Yale College, and of Yale College alumni, more really is better!”

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