Curvy bench on Market Island

Hot Seats

You might want to sit down for this: downtown New Haven boasts world-class ways to take a load off, if you know where to find them.

The open-air Margaret and Angus Wurtele Sculpture Garden at the Yale University Art Gallery (1111 Chapel Street) offers plenty of options, and it may as well be in your own backyard for all the privacy it affords. Although the garden is free and open to the public, and despite its situation just off the gallery’s busy main lobby, and even though it’s one of the few places on the grounds where visitors can eat, drink and photograph without admonition, there’s usually nobody else there.

Anyone you do encounter is likely to be of a solitudinous type anyway, which leaves it to the sculptures to do most of the talking. Martin Puryear’s Le Prix, or “The Price,” is the first installation to greet you, and it’s probably the most whimsical, forming what is unmistakably a snail, but out of decidedly inorganic forms and materials. A thick, brass chain-link neck arches asymptotically up and away from a beveled shell, creating the illusion of animate exertion, and prompting amazement at such a feat of engineering.

But you can’t easily sit down near it. Onward, then, past Le Prix, and upward, via an impressive cement-slab stairway, you’ll find a landscape of clay-colored pebbles with various monuments to gawk at and places to relieve your tired feet, including a glorious, arching tree with a solitary bench at its base. As you leave the top of the stairs, to the far left stands Erin Shirreff’s black geometric monolith Sculpture for Snow (pictured third, above)—stark and exacting, but with a playful side. Really: if you walk halfway around it, where more benches are, the geometry suddenly becomes ambiguous, playing with perspective.

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A block away, the courtyard of Yale’s stunning, Tudor-style dormitory Vanderbilt Hall, situated on Chapel Street between High and College Streets, plays tricks of its own. Obstructed as it is from Chapel by fence and foliage, you can walk by the place a hundred times—you probably have, as it’s right across the street from a high-traffic span of sidewalk bounded by Union League Cafe and WAVE Gallery—and never realize that it’s publicly accessible. But rest assured: beyond that foliage, on the opposite side, is an open entryway reachable via another open entryway, as well as three wooden benches that provide one of the prettiest reposes in downtown.

To get there from Chapel, head northward on High and hang a quick right through the brick-flanked wrought-iron gate, which you’ll know by its dedication to 18th-century Yalies Samuel and Elnathan Whitman. Proceed about a hundred yards, then turn right onto Old Campus’s central pathway. In daytime, the courtyard’s sunlit contours beckon from the other side of a shadowy archway (pictured first, above); at night, for the time being anyway, a couple strings of yellow Christmas lights do the same, and ratchet up the romance to boot.

While the Vanderbilt courtyard offers a cinematic view back through the archway and across Old Campus, the large yard outside Yale’s Laboratory of Epidemiology and Public Health, located down College Street past South Frontage Road, feels like a movie set by itself. Impeccably maintained, it’s got dramatic topography and diverse architecture to explore. Unexpected nooks and crannies can be found along winding footpaths, and because the area’s only accessible from one side, along College, the whole thing feels like a closed system in spite of its size and variety. And oh, the seating choices: beneath two massive, gleaming stacks (pictured fourth, above) reaching skyward from the Sterling Power Plant complex, spread-out benches and picnic tables abound, offering stimulating vantage points and plenty of privacy and quiet. Wander deeper, away from College Street, to get more of the latter.

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In other spots downtown, the best seats to take are right on the edge of the street—or streets, as is the case for Market Island’s long, thin, snaking bench (pictured second, above) at the intersection of Elm, Whalley and Broadway. Railings and plantings keep the surrounding vehicular traffic mostly out of mind, and the view down Broadway’s prime retail stretch provides enough activity to put people-watchers on the edges of their seats. And of all the places we’ve visited today, this is the one where people from disparate life situations—old and young, rich and poor, native and transplant, world-weary and wide-eyed—are most liable to take a break, together.

That’s something worth sitting down for.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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