Science goes up Prospect Street

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series concerning the physical history of Science Hill at Yale. Look in the next issue for the conclusion!

One hundred years ago, Science Hill was simply known as the Hillhouse property with science laboratories pushed to the fringe of Old Campus. Knowing that it had to remain competitive in the sciences, Yale decided to dedicate new land and buildings specifically for their use. Yale had its eye on the vast undeveloped land north of campus on Prospect Street, and in 1905 hired the renowned landscape architect of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, to draft a plan for its development. A gift in 1910 allowed the university to purchase the Hillhouse property. In downtown New Haven, Yale was bounded by the city around it. On the new property, by contrast, a planned and orderly campus could be created.

Olmsted laid out a plan with buildings along the perimeter of the property with a long, central building at the end of Hillhouse Avenue (Figure 1). The site would be unified and parklike. As a way to standardize the new buildings, the Yale Corporation decided to choose a single construction style for all new projects on the site: gothic. Asked about that development, Robert Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said “it was brilliant to make the early buildings gothic because the central campus is mostly gothic. The formal language integrated the sciences into a larger context.”

Of course, these plans were mere suggestions, drawn up long before funding for any building was available. The construction of the Sloane Physics Lab (1912) and Osborn Memorial Labs (1914) by architect Charles C. Haight followed the plan. In 1923, the demands of scientists and the budget of the University caused the first major break in the Olmsted plan: Delano & Aldrich’s Sterling Chemistry Laboratory. The laboratory was large, impenetrable, and brick (Figure 2). No building in the Olmsted plan had been so hulking, but the scientists’ demands were best met by the innovative open floor plan. Sterling Chemistry Lab became a world of its own. With modern and skylit lab space surrounded by offices and lecture halls, the whole complex was sheathed in a Gothic skin. It was the largest single building dedicated to chemistry in the world and became a universe unto itself without regard to the street or city around it. After the dedication of the chemistry lab came Sage Hall (1923), the Peabody Museum (1925), and a handful of other small structures. They kept roughly to the plan of 1905, but each made concessions of material and scale, which together would eventually serve to cripple Olmstead’s grand plan for the Hill.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the idyllic plans drawn up by Olmsted would be broken. The nature of science serves to outdate every lab building before it can even open. When William Delano was drawing up plans for the chemistry laboratory, a professor told him Yale simply needed “a piece of ground where [we] could build temporary buildings, to be torn down and replaced—as need demanded.” This idea did not sit well with architects or the donors whose names were to be affixed to the building. Thus, science hill architecture approached midcentury struggling to match its grand beginnings with the reality of its situation.

Following the second World War and the influx of veterans under the GI bill, Science Hill again became an optimistic landscape for expanding the University. Research done in the old Sterling Labs had helped win the war, and now Yale needed more physical space to remain a leader in the field. This optimism did not, however, translate to a renaissance in the architecture of the hill. By the midcentury, architects would not dream of crafting—and the University could not afford to erect—a Gothic structure. Gibbs Laboratories (1955) and the Peabody’s boxy Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory (1959) used a language that approximated, according to art historian Vincent Scully, “banal and rather tacky late modernism” (Figure 3). The most significant mid-century structure was Philip Johnson’s 1965 Kline Biology Tower (KBT) (Figure 4). The tower proved much more difficult to use than the sprawling Sterling labs: Stern points out that “researchers in Kline cannot expand or change the labs. They are constantly chasing their tails around.” Many researchers whose labs are located at KBT share the same sentiment. The dramatic height of, KBT did, however, serve as a visual reminder of Science Hill to the rest of campus and to this day, stands out from afar.

It was not until President Richard Levin took office that significant new construction began to appear on Science Hill, including the Bass Center for Molecular & Structural Biology (1993), the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center (2001), and the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building (2005) (Figure 5). Each of these buildings looks back to the Olmsted plan in color and sitting; they are made of brown and red brick and border courtyards. Each is also vaguely gothic. By the end of the century, the pattern from the central campus of towers, low buildings, and courtyards had finally begun to manifest itself on the Hill.

But perhaps it was too late. One is hard pressed to find anyone enjoying the windy and bleak courtyard surrounded by squat columns at the base of Kline Biology Tower. It is a heavy-handed modernist box, void of personality. Many of the newer buildings are merely sheds for lab space sheathed in brick, void of ornament or detail. Architecture Professor Alexander Purves suggests that it is the unique functional demands of science that have prevented the area from becoming an integral part of campus life. “The Hill is separated by buildings not constantly in use, they are institutional lumps.” Purves notes that “a street can organize lab space but it doesn’t connect a campus. In a square, things aggregate and bounce like billiard balls, but a street doesn’t provide its own energy like a square does.” There is nothing to keep people on Science Hill after classes, and nothing to bring a campus life up to Prospect Street.

The buildings on Science Hill have not formed the cohesive quad so beautifully planned, and this lack of order is only heightened by the great variety of styles used. “People will resist buildings that are ugly” Purves acknowledges, “but [they] adjust.” It is these adjustments, and this willingness to accept Science Hill as a non-distinctive and barren place that have so alienated the area in the minds of the undergraduate population at Yale. The result: the once empty landscape of the upper Hillhouse district is now littered with facilities, separated from the central campus by both physical distance and mental remove.