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Yale's carvings set sense of humor in stone

By Siobhan Peiffer

They mock your study habits, inspire you with their history, and look sternly down at you from above. Faces in stone, lavishly carved in the early 20th century, which run the gamut from the grotesque to the grandiose, either lend irreverence or gravity to the Gothic buildings they embellish. A quick glance at any of Yale's gargoyles or engravings will reveal that Yale's artisans had a sense of humor as well as a sense of history.

Trumbullians, for example, have "Potty Court," named for a prominent gargoyle who appears to be relieving himself. Davenport is graced with a statue of its patron, one of the founders of New Haven, with a noose around his neck--a macabre joke referring to Davenport's grandfather, who was hanged for cattle theft. And if you've ever wondered what "the Yale" actually looks like, check out the two-horned unicorn above the D-port gate.

Other colleges have their namesakes on display too; Jonathan Edwards looks down on his college from Harkness Tower, supposedly shocked by its debauchery. Abraham Pierson has his own statue on the Old Campus (of course, it's not really Pierson at all--but that's another story).

Yale owes its stone creations to the architectural team working under James Gamble Rogers during the building projects of the '20s and '30s. Many of Rogers' workers were immigrants who brought with them the heritage of centuries of European artisanship. At the Hall of Graduate Studies, one of Rogers' last projects, the architect allowed his employees to immortalize themselves in stone. This explains the archway of big-eared heads that greets you as you enter the graduate school. The ears prove they had listened to Rogers well.

Yale's Law School is also brimming with similarly witty architectural touches. During its construction in 1930, the New Haven Register raved about the building's "little figures who prance in unrestrained glee across the rooftops." See if you find the professor sleeping through class, the prostitute being arrested, and the drunk talking his way out of a conviction. The Law School also boasts a granite representation of Handsome Dan, complete with legal brief, looking out from the roof over the Grove Street cemetery.

While Sterling Memorial Library has actually been called a "Cathedral to Knowledge," its stonework has some decidedly secular touches. One engraving portrays a scene of two thieves carting away their books, while at the corridor of "student life" carvings depict Yalies sleeping on their books, tempted by the devil, drinking while studying, receiving bribes, and reading "U R A Joke."

The architects loved Yale's dark Gothic style so much that they built a miniature castle on Sterling's roof with their excess material. Rumors swirl about the castle's real use--the somewhat prosaic explanation is that it houses machinery for the library's air-conditioning system.

Undoubtedly, though, the greatest achievement in Yale stonework is the frequently photographed Harkness Tower, a 217-foot University landmark that houses the largest carillon this side of Riverside Church. Around its clock face stand the Eight Great Men of Yale, looking down on their college. All are graduates except for our namesake himself and James Fenimore Cooper, who was expelled from Yale for an explosive prank and later given a hasty honorary degree.

Rogers included plenty of images of student life on Harkness Tower as well. The highest level of gargoyles depics four sides of the happy Yalie: pen-wielding writer, proficient athlete, tea-drinking socialite, and diligent scholar.

Go aheaad and find your fate as the ninth great alum on Harkness Tower, maybe, or the next debauched thief being arrested by a granite policeman up on top of the Law School roof!

Photo by Tyler Mertes

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