Mason Laboratory at Yale University

Archery 101

At Yale, there are arched backs in Dance Studies classes and in Yogis at Yale sessions. Arched brows as curious, libidinous college students scope out classmates. Arch nemeses whenever Harvard comes to town.

Then there are the arches that don’t graduate after a handful of years. Don’t dissipate as the semester wears on. Don’t take a bus home to Massachusetts following the match.

These archways are metaphorical rocks made of literal ones—enduring sources of pride and esteem and visual drama. They have practical uses, too, offering passage to important places, providing landmarks for meeting up, brightening days by letting in natural light and setting a general tone of excellence that bleeds into our lives.

I say “our” because you don’t have to attend Yale to be inspired by them. Most are easily accessible to the rest of us.

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Knights of Columbus Museum
Take the sterling examples in the nave of the Sterling Memorial Library (120 High St, New Haven), which are still gleaming and glorious after an eighteen-month restoration project finished in 2014. The central hall of the nave—like much of the library, open to the public before 6 p.m. on weekdays and 4:45 on weekends—is one big archway. The ceiling is a Tudor arch: sharply curved at the outer edges, with flat, low rises on each side and a point at the top.

But Gothic arches, defined by higher, more continuously curving rises that come to a point, dominate the space. Two levels of them flank both sides of the hall, forming passageways at ground level and windows above, each separated from its neighbors by huge lit-up columns made of stone blocks the colors of cream and sand. Not to be outdone, both the entry and the end of the hall feature towering Gothic arches. The former hosts an ornate window; the latter frames Alma Mater by Eugene Francis Savage, a mural which even has a trefoil arch—characterized by three rounded components, like a clover—painted into it.

Back outside, hanging a quick left down Elm Street and then a right onto College, you’ll hit a tunneling archway many of us know very well: Phelps Gate, composed of stone in light reddish brown hues that darken considerably in shadow between two wrought-iron gates. The main entrance to the first-year dormitory hub of Old Campus, it’s essentially where Yale’s incoming freshmen come in to Yale; but the passage is also considered, at least symbolically, to embody the nexus between town and gown, connecting as it does the fresh blood at Yale with the heart of New Haven, a.k.a. the city green. You might also think of it as the nexus between Yale and the rest of the world; it’s where a lot of students get picked up to go to the train station or the airport.

Phelps also blurs a different topical line: the one that’s supposed to exist between rounded and Gothic arches. Most of the surface area of the upper archway is curved all the way around, but then there are support ribs and exterior moldings, spaced like ripples from dropping a pebble in water, that form the slightest angled tip at the peak.

Another arch which melds different kinds—and has a lot of extra fun besides—is the one presiding over the entrance to the Mason Laboratory (9 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven), part of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. The general impression is of a single unified overhang above the front door, but a probing eye reveals something like nine different layers of arches, mixing two distinct types and a bold and beautiful array of materials: light grey stone, rich brown wood and an off-white stucco.

The outermost layer is what’s called a flat arch—the top is perpendicular to the sides yet, despite the lack of curvature, still has some voussoirs (supporting stones) and a keystone. Each of the inner layers are curved with a point at the top, suggesting Gothic. The wood door itself is shaped like this, and it’s made radiant, along with the adjacent stucco layer, from backlighting embedded behind the next layer out. Completing the picture, three-dimensional lettering spells “MASON LABORATORY” across a lintel above it all.

At least there can’t be any confusion on that point.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. This lightly adjusted story was originally published on September 11, 2014.

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