Harkness Memorial Tower has become a symbol for Yale University. It was the first building James Gamble Rogers erected on the New Haven campus and it was gifted by Anna M. Harkness in memory of her recently deceased son, Charles William (1860–1916), who had graduated from Yale in 1883. The Quadrangle now houses two of Yale’s residential colleges, Branford and Saybrook.
By the early twentieth century, Yale had outgrown its facilities on Old Campus and was in desperate need of new dormitories. Yale alumnus Edward Harkness, acting as his mother’s representative, became involved in the planning process, selecting as architect James Gamble Rogers, who had previously designed the Harkness residence at 1 East 75th Street as well as the Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue, both in New York City.
In the overall design of the Harkness Memorial Tower, Rogers drew inspiration from the fourteenth-century St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, England, whose tower is known as the Boston Stump. Rogers’s steeple faces Yale’s Old Campus across High Street and stands on the southern end of the Quadrangle. It is 216 feet high with 284 steps leading up to its roof. While the simplicity of the lower part of the tower showcases the intricate masonry and color play of the stones—which can be found throughout the whole complex—the Gothic ornamentation increases towards the top. The truncated steeple ends in an octagonal top with eight small spires reaching into the sky.
Throughout the tower, there are several iconographic links to Yale’s past and its ideals. The sculptures, which were carved by Lee Lawrie, include the university’s namesake, Elihu Yale, as well as noteworthy alumni Jonathan Edwards, Nathan Hale, Noah Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, John C. Calhoun, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Eli Whitney. Statues of Phidias, Homer, Aristotle, and Euclid link the university to the great thinkers of ancient Greece. Towards the top of the steeple, the iconographic elements become increasingly abstract and embody values such as freedom and courage, or reference war, peace, and death.
Rogers arranged the adjacent dormitories around courtyards, with Branford Court being the largest central one, and Killingworth and Saybrook courts on the northern end. All three were named after the first meeting locations of Yale College in its early days. Towards the southern end, the three small courtyards bear the names of early Yale societies: Brothers in Unity, Calliope, and Linonia. The smallest in the group is Wrexham Court on the western side of the complex. The dormitories vary in height, with the ones facing Library Walk on the south side lower in elevation then the ones facing Elm Street to the north. This arrangement allows sunlight to flood through each of the courtyards. The turreted, gated entrances seclude the colleges from the urban fabric and evoke medieval monastic architecture.
The Harkness Tower finds its counterbalance in the smaller Wrexham Tower, located diagonally across Branford Court on York Street. Wrexham Tower, with its four elongated spires on each of its corner, is Rogers’s architectural tribute to St. Giles’s Church in Wrexham, Wales, where Elihu Yale is buried. (Yale’s Wrexham Tower has an original stone within its walls taken from its Welsh counterpart.) In the 1930s, Yale introduced the residential college plan modeled after the English systems found at Oxford and Cambridge and separated the dormitories between different college buildings. Rogers converted the Memorial Quadrangle into two separate entities, Branford and Saybrook colleges, with kitchens, dining halls, common rooms, masters’ houses, and libraries for each college. In his designs, Rogers attempted to fabricate age. The stone walks and stairs, for instance, were artificially worn down and parts of the ornamental window leading were made to look as if they had been repaired over time. The complex itself, with the individual buildings varying in height and decorative elements, also appears to have been assembled over time.
When the Harkness Memorial Tower and Quadrangle first opened in 1921, it was well received and Rogers was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree. In the years to come, Rogers completed several commissions on Yale’s campus, among them six additional residential colleges, Sterling Memorial Library, and the Hall of Graduate Studies. His compositional sensitivity gives Yale University’s architecture cohesiveness, with the Harkness Memorial Tower at its core. Since its opening, the tower has housed a carillon that was cast by John Taylor Bellfoundry of Loughborough, England. The instrument is still played today by the student members of the Guild of Carillonneurs.
Betsky, Aaron. James Gamble Rogers and the Architecture of Pragmatism. New York: The Architectural History Foundation and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Brown, Elizabeth Mills. New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
Handlin, David P. American Architecture. 2nd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Pierce, Patricia D. Sparing No Detail: The Drawings of James Gamble Rogers for Yale University, 1913-1935. Foreword by Paul Goldberger. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982.
Pinnell, Patrick L. The Campus Guide: Yale University. 2nd ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2013.
Ryan, Susan. “The Architecture of James Gamble Rogers at Yale University.” Perspecta 18 (1982): 24-41.
Scully, Vincent. American Architecture and Urbanism. New York: Frederick A. Preager, Inc., 1969.
Wilcox, Marrion. “The Harkness Memorial Quadrangle at Yale. James Gamble Rogers Architect.” Architectural Record 43 (February 1918): 148-159.
Wilcox, Marrion. “The Harkness Memorial Quadrangle at Yale. James Gamble Rogers Architect.” Architectural Record 50 (September 1921): 162-182.
Wiseman, Carter. Twentieth-Century American Architecture: The Buildings and Their Makers. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.