Today we’re going back into the archives. Below is an updated version of an article that appeared in one of Daily Nutmeg’s first editions, published on February 24, 2012. Enjoy!
The Hotel Duncan is surprising. Vintage and character-laden, the Chapel Street staple has been around for more than a century. Hand-painted lettering and a seemingly improvised neon sign are just the first indications that it offers a hotel visit unlike any other, though it’s only once you’re inside that the Duncan’s real secrets begin to reveal themselves.
A majestic entryway and a lobby filled with old-fashioned comfy furniture remind you of a time when men and women wore hats and offered each other drinks in the morning. The gentleman behind the desk refused to give us his name but kindly handed us a real key to our room (not one of those newfangled plastic cards with magnetic stripes).
Want more nostalgia? The Duncan boasts the oldest elevator in Connecticut. Hand-operated, riding up with the bellhop, it felt like traveling back in time. Not nearly so fast as 88 mph, it gave me a rush to imagine brushing shoulders with ladies and gents of a bygone era. Our somewhat cheerful elevator operator threw back the switch and gave us the rundown on its history, and recommended dining at Thai Taste, the subterranean restaurant below the Duncan.
Arriving at the top floor—which is to say, the fifth floor—the gate slid aside and I was taken aback by the old-timey look and feel. True-to-form, the Duncan’s boarding house roots were showing. Formerly shared bathrooms and the last of the steps greeted us on our journey to our room, which was clean, reasonably sized, and functioned perfectly well as a place to sleep and shower (though we got some indication that rooms varied greatly).
True, the décor is dated, but it’s charming and nothing is affected; genuine history is the name of the game at the Duncan. It is what it is, so take it or leave it. The hallways have an eerie quality, but it’s more remarkable than scary. At the end, a view of New Haven compensates for any shred of hesitation or thoughts wandering towards “haunted.” A bright blue cloudless sky made for a perfect backdrop to a few keepsake photographs as I captured the beautiful view and soaked up some sunshine at the same time. Making my way down the stairs, these too impressed me with their antiquated but attractive banisters.
Despite its deserved reputation for oddness, the Duncan is downtown, surrounded by arts, entertainment and lively happenings just steps from its entrance—restaurants, bars, galleries, boutiques, theater. The area really has it all, and within walking distance. No matter your pleasure, it’s probably a hop, a skip and a jump away.
This quaint, quiet and quirky old-timer may not be the best bet for you. Room service is a foreign notion; so too are spa amenities and valet parking. But for those seeking something out of the ordinary with an appreciation for just-the-basics accommodations and a keep-to-yourself stay, the Duncan is perhaps the key to your ye olde Yale visit. Plus, with all the green you’ll save by foregoing the predictable chains, you’ll more readily be able to take advantage of the plethora of gems nearby. You can always check into somewhere more luxurious, (like, say, The Study at Yale next door) but be prepared to drop more dough.
Open-minded travelers and hometown explorers who stay at the Duncan aren’t just getting a bargain hotel. They’re getting a story. What that story will be depends almost entirely on their outlook, and their spirit of adventure.
1151 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Written by Nell Alk.