Moat on Yale’s Cross Campus

Designer Framing

Once you learn about the moats, you’ll notice them all around Yale’s campus. Edging the exteriors of many signature buildings, their presence is one of the lasting contributions of Beatrix Farrand, who served as the university’s first and only official landscape architect from 1923 to 1945.

Moats sound like things meant primarily to keep people away, but not these. Functionally, they discreetly house infrastructure like vents and secondary egresses. Aesthetically, they imbue the campus with additional depth, complexity and potential. As noted by Beka Sturges, a Farrand enthusiast who works for landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand and consults for Yale, the moats often create “multiple stories of vegetation, which is very, very unusual in an urban place.”

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Rose Walk—the carless portion of High Street that passes in front of Sterling Memorial Library—wasn’t laid out by Farrand, but it illustrates the “landscape principles and the design guidelines” she’s credited with bringing to the campus, Sturges says. The sidewalk is bordered by raised beds of groundcover, which are backed by walled and sunken moats, hiding building mechanicals and protecting the trees that grow from their depths.

But moats are just one part of Farrand’s legacy. She was already accomplished in her field when, in 1913, she came to New Haven after her marriage to Max Farrand, head of Yale’s history department. By then, she had done work for the New York Botanical Garden, Princeton University and the estates of many prominent Northeast families including major Yale benefactors the Harknesses. “I think she was already influencing things quite a bit before her formal contract began because of just the layered relationships that she had,” Sturges says. “By all accounts she was just extraordinarily knowledgeable and compelling.”

Farrand’s efforts in places like Princeton and Dumbarton Oaks, the Georgetown estate of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, have been more fully realized and preserved than her work at Yale. But it’s still possible to take your own historic Farrand tour of Yale’s campus.

The best place to start at the moment is actually indoors: the mezzanine level of the Osborn Memorial Laboratories building at Sachem and Prospect Streets, where a small exhibit curated by research greenhouse manager Chris Bolick includes a few historic photographs; Farrand’s design, only partially and temporarily realized, for the Marsh Botanical Garden, which was her brainchild; a QR-coded clip from The Life and Gardens of Beatrix Farrand, a film by Karyl Evans; and a moat-like planting in a deep, bright window, this one featuring flora under study by Yale biologists.

From Osborn, you might walk down Sachem toward Whitney Avenue, where a sidewalk to the right follows a stone wall topped with an iron fence, which marks the rear of the Yale president’s house garden, designed by Farrand. Though you won’t see its somewhat intact sunken garden (unless you score an invitation from President Peter Salovey), the gated driveway on Whitney offers a clear view of a grove of ancient rhododendrons that appears on Farrand’s plans and might even be her original planting. Among these flowering shrubs is a massive copper beech tree with purple leaves that also appears in Farrand’s design.

Down Whitney to Wall Street, a right turn takes you past the Beinecke Library to the aforementioned Rose Walk, where you’ll find some moats and the Sterling Library. Sterling’s Selin Courtyard is currently being used as a construction staging area, but when it reopens (planned for late this year), you’ll be able to step into one of the most intact Farrand-designed spaces on campus. Here there’s evidence of Farrand’s original concept of “layered planting that was very simple, to give a sense of scale and vitality to the spaces,” Sturges explains. Paths, lawn and trees dominate the interior, while “lush” plantings, flowers and vines are kept to the edges, where “they would bring a sense of scale to these larger Gothic facades, which tend to be… dwarfing.”

A fountain at the center of the courtyard dates to the mid-1930s, when Farrand decided to replace a smaller pool with something more “architectural,” according to Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist. Quoting the Library Gazette, Schiff reports that a London leadworking firm constructed “a fountain compounded from several of their old dies, in the ancient manner… The cast stone dolphins are also made from old molds. ‘The fountain in the Library court therefore carries on a tradition in the use of this metal as old as the collecting of libraries…’”

Past the library, across Elm Street and half a block down High Street is the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle, which includes the landmark Harkness Tower. The quadrangle isn’t usually open to the public—though you can visit most Friday evenings during the 2018 Summer Carillon Concert Series—but you can press your nose against the wrought iron gate and get a glimpse of another Farrand design, including walkways built along “lines of desire”—the natural paths of travel from one space to another. Vegetation is terraced along the edges of the buildings, and a few large trees provide shade.

This quadrangle, shared by Branford and Saybrook Colleges, actually contains a series of courtyards that have been restored and may even include some of Farrand’s original plantings, including shadbush, dogwoods, rhododendrons, witch hazel, magnolia, wisteria and cranberry. If you do have regular access to them—or you find yourself attending one of those carillon shows—you can see firsthand how Beatrix Farrand’s legacy is growing.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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