How Science Was Built: 1701-1900

The built history of Yale is one of the richest architectural stories in America. Yet, the historical architecture of Yale’s science buildings is often left out of the story. While the central campus is a textile, densely woven with pedestrian areas, roadways, courtyards, and buildings, Science Hill forms a separate world of frightening urban isolation. Part one of this series explores science at Yale before the construction of Science Hill.

Science: Beneath the Pedigree of a Yale Man

When Yale College was founded in 1701, science instruction was considered to be beneath the pedigree of a Yale man. The sciences were virtually nonexistent on the early Yale campus. Today, science instruction is not only available but also required, and each shopping period, hundreds of humanities students frantically struggle to find an astronomy or biology class to register for in order to graduate. Yale’s transition from a colonial liberal arts college into a global research university has a fascinating analogue to the changes in its built environment.

The story of the architecture of Yale’s sciences begins some 100 years after Yale’s founding. In 1801, President Timothy Dwight appointed Benjamin Silliman (A.B. 1796, A.M. 1799) as Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, one of the first substantive science posts in Yale’s history. With the professorship assignment came a distinct demand for classroom space: the laboratory. Consequently, the Yale Corporation ordered the construction of the Lyceum building on the Old Brick Row, the site of today’s Old Campus, which, according to the Yale Corporation, “combined strength with simplicity.”

In Lyceum’s basement, Yale built the world’s first teaching laboratory for modern chemistry, its form and structure breaking from existent Yale design. Though architect Peter Banner created white rooms with large windows throughout most of the building, in the lab he placed a low, false vault stretching across the ceiling of the cavernous, windowless room. Silliman later mused that the design was inspired by the architect’s “vague impressions of chemistry— perhaps a confused and terrific dream of alchemy, with its black arts, its explosions, and its weird-like mysteries.” Additionally, the laboratory’s near-invisibility beneath Old Brick Row vividly evinced the sciences’ lowly status in the Yale curriculum. In spite of his cramped quarters, Silliman placed Yale at the center of American science with his work in chemistry, mineralogy, pharmacy, and geology.

Specializing Science

As the eighteenth century progressed, science became more specialized. While major competitors such as Harvard launched innovative elective systems with many science classes, Yale held to its rigid, Puritan curriculum. For the most part, the nineteenth century elite believed science too pragmatic, too vocational to be a legitimate focus of a Yale education.

Meanwhile, Yale attempted to distance itself from the sciences by creating a new institution for that focus. In 1847, the Sheffield Scientific School was founded as a separate science and engineering school. The “Sheff School,” as it was known, was tied into Yale College by incorporating documents, but was not a part of Yale in the eyes of undergraduates.

Administrators at the Scientific School attempted to craft their own spatial environment by erecting their own science buildings on Hillhouse Avenue and Prospect Street beginning in 1858. The Sheffield buildings, designed by Josiah Cleaveland Cady, were exercises in simplicity of ornament and style in order to create open lab spaces.

Expansion of the Sciences

Following the Civil War, Yale required more courses and classrooms than ever before. An increasingly wealthy alumni network allowed this unprecedented expansion, and often a donor’s gift came with the building’s name, architect, and purpose attached. In 1882, two alumni brothers gave funds to erect a laboratory for the College to be designed by Richard Raht. While President Noah Porter could not refuse such generosity, his opinions toward science were evidenced in his refusal to offer space for the new Sloane Labs on the still growing Old Campus. Instead, it was placed due west of campus on Library Street. If the sciences were finally getting a proper building, it would most certainly not be within the sacred nine-acres of the Old Campus.

Though in the very rear of campus, Sloane Physical Laboratory was no background building. The building’s L-shaped plan suggests Sloane Labs wanted to command a corner, yet it sits squarely in the center of the block. Raht employed a High Victorian, vaguely gothic style, with a steep roof, high basement, framed ornamental flemish gables, and— most distinctly— an octagonal tower at the crux of the L-plan. Its ornament and overly-dramatic height all seemed to yearn for a leap onto the Old Campus, or at the very least, be clearly visible from the venerable College yard. It was “undoubtedly the most elegant and thoroughly appointed physical laboratory in the US” according to Professor of Molecular Physics A.W. Wright (B.A. 1859, PH.D. 1861). If the Sheffield School’s labs were exercises in restraint, Sloane showed science wrapped in the most current fashion. It announced to the street that science had gained importance in the College.

In 1887, Yale further accepted its role as a science institution by constructing a second laboratory. Raht designed a squat, Richardsonian Romanesque L-plan building with a low, wide tower at the corner. While Sloane’s agitated exterior reflected the complex interior, Kent Labs put a stoic, rhythmic facade to the street. Neither building incorporated iconography from science, instead they appear to have sought to satisfy a broader, less programmatic desire of “morality” in architecture. Science was growing at Yale but its buildings little diverged from other Yale structures.

In the ensuing decades, Yale repurposed, expanded, and eliminated the science buildings on central campus. Sloane Laboratory was converted to classrooms in 1912, the Peabody torn down in 1917, and both Sloane and Kent labs were destroyed in 1931. Just as Silliman’s lab was pushed to the basement and the Sloane Labs not allowed onto Old Campus, Yale again created a new fringe to host the sciences: Science Hill. Past the Sheffield School and the Grove Street Cemetery, Yale began the twentieth century with hope for the sciences in the north while the central campus was transformed into the new heart of the College, safely void of any physical manifestation of the sciences.

Editor’s Note: Over the next three issues, this magazine will examine the 300-year saga of how science at Yale was built from the ground up.