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HGS: Home of the Graduate School 1932 - 2015

The Hall of Graduate Studies (HGS) was built between 1930 and 1932 by architect James Gamble Rogers, who became known as a master of the Collegiate Gothic style. HGS originally was created to contain faculty offices & academic departments in the humanities, administrative offices of the Graduate School, classrooms and public areas like a Common Room and Dining Hall, and dormitory rooms for male and, later, female graduate students, and as a center for academic and student life.

In 2015, the Graduate School administrative offices moved to Warner House (1 Hillhouse Avenue). HGS is scheduled to be transformed into a hub for the humanities starting in 2018, but the impressive structure will still stand as a significant monument to the history of graduate education at Yale. It will continue to be a multipurpose building for graduate education and graduate residential life until 2018.

From 1997-2017, HGS was the first home of the McDougal Graduate Student Center, a social and student service center for graduate students, with a restored Common Room, and the student-run Blue Dog Cafe. The HGS Dining Hall operated as a residential dining facility from 1932-2017.

Collegiate Gothic Architecture

HGS was built in a monumental neo-gothic style, but with a sense of whimsy and self-referential humor, with architectural details and carvings depicting the users and uses of the building. For example stone turtles and snails are carved on the entryway (the slow but steady pace of graduate study) and grapes & vines decorate the dining hall paneling (for wine, even though HGS was built during Prohibition). 

HGS has distinctive and detailed Gothic Revival architectural features - embossed bricks, etched stained glass windows, fanciful stone carvings of real and mythical animals, ornate custom ironwork on gates & lights, carved wood paneling, and decorative brick walkways. Over the main entrance archway, carved stone heads represent real people - the architects, builders and deans involved with construction. While at HGS, look up and down to see amazing details in stone and wood.

There are 2 interior courtyards, one large and one small, and a 14 story tower with a fanciful copper hat and spire. With the tower built of decorative brick over a steel frame, HGS is a model of skyscraper gothic, like New York City's Woolworth building. Built in the 1930s, it also mixes art nouveau and art deco elements with neo-gothic ones. 

Wilbur Lucius Cross: GSAS Dean and Father of HGS

Wilbur Cross, Dean 1916-1930, advocated for many years for building a home for the Graduate School on the Yale Campus. Cross argued to the Yale Administration that building a Hall of Graduate Studies was necessary to make the “Invisible Graduate School Visible” to the University and the world. (A Connecticut Yankee, p. 184-185). Dean Cross finally won a space for HGS at 320 York Street, at the head of Wall Street, across from the new Sterling Library. Construction began in 1930 and was completed in 1932, when Dean Cross had retired from Yale. He then ran for and won the Governorship of Connecticut (1931-38). Governor Cross returned to Yale for the HGS dedication ceremonies.HGS sketch 1929

Construction and the early Years at HGS

HGS was James Gamble Rogers’s fourth major project for Yale. Constructed as the academic, administrative and residential core of the graduate school, the building was the third and last of the projects financed by the bequest of John W. Sterling (‘1864), whose name is carved over the entrance (but the building was not one of the 7 named for him at Yale). Rogers proposed a multi-functional grouping of buildings around two courtyards that would combine graduate school classrooms and offices with a fourteen-story residential tower. Dean Cross had long hoped that a Hall of Graduate Studies, when built, would bridge the division between the school’s residential and administrative spheres, and Rogers sought to achieve that goal.

Passing through the front gate and under the tower, you pass down a monastic looking corridor to arrive at the nave-like dining room and, finally, the Common Room - spaces in which the desired melding of official and residential functions met. Whether clustered around the original dining tables of three or four, purposely chosen for their intimate scale, or taking tea served daily in the Common Room in the early years of HGS’s operation, students, according to Dean Furniss, could now be brought together “among themselves and with members of the faculty under conditions favorable to a broadening of their interests and experiences.”

In the Common Room, graduate students expanded both intellectual and social interests, making use of leather-upholstered chairs, broad tables, a grand piano, checker boards and backgammon sets. A faculty lounge, on the second floor above the entryway, provided additional spaces for interaction. Women, who were not permitted to live in HGS originally, and who could only be present in student rooms, with the dean’s permission, between the afternoon hours of one and six, were accommodated in a upper floor lounge in which they held separate teas.

Although the tradition has largely been discontinued, HGS was intended to house residences for students AND faculty; until 1972, Dean Furniss occupied both a ground-floor office and an apartment on the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth floors of the tower. Early on, six professors, five visiting professors, several tutors and a number of research fellows were clustered in rooms around the smaller of the two courtyards. While some of these faculty rooms were converted to office space in later years, up to one hundred and seventy graduate students, now both men and women, regularly resided at HGS in a combination of single bedrooms, study-bedrooms and suites in “Oxford style” with built-in bookcases, arched windows, and nonworking fireplaces.

“He was born with a gift for laughter and a sense that the world was mad”

The most “notorious” architectural and historical element of HGS is this quote, carved in stone over the archway from the Courtyard, now enclosed by glass doors. It is the opening line of Rafael Sabatini’s best-selling novel of the 1920s, Scaramouche the Kingmaker.  It’s the story of a cynic who has adventures but gains wisdom in the end. Scaramouche is a classic roguish clown character of the Italian comedia dell'arte, who was reinvented in Sabatini's novel, depicted in several movies, and featured in the classic Rock opera “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975) by Queen (play the audio clip!).

Along with the fantastical animals and carved heads, the HGS builders displayed their sense of whimsy, even humor, here again. We do not really know why they decided to inscribe this particular quote on HGS, but several explanations have been offered: 1) It is a comment on the nature of the typical graduate student; 2) a reference to Dean Wilbur Cross; 3) an affectionate nod to the architect Rogers, whose eclecticism matched that of the fictional Scaramouche; or perhaps all of the above. Today it might be like a building inscription which quotes a popular book or movie - Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Twilight, or even Star Wars? 

When the building first opened, this HGS quotation was met with confusion and mirth in the press. The New Yorker commented on it in 1934, and Harvard magazine made fun of it, suggesting that the Yale administrators did not know that Scaramouche was not a scholarly book. Whatever the reason, the choice of a quote from a contemporary novel on a building dedicated to scholarly pursuits also demonstrates that graduate study is both backward and forward looking, engaged in timeless works but also with books of modern times. It also shows graduate students that we can and should have fun, and laugh at ourselves - a healthy outlook for getting a graduate degree, perhaps.

HGS Today

HGS housed 125 male & female graduate students in the dormitory, along with classrooms and several humanities departments. In 1996, renovations to and restoration of the Common Room and adjoining areas created space for the McDougal Graduate Student Center, which occupied HGS from 1997-2017.  The Center renovation, including the restoration of the amazing Common Room ceiling, and ongoing program support was made possible by the generous donation of Yale College alumnus Alfred McDougal (B.A. 1953) and his wife Nancy Lauter. In 2017, the McDougal Center moved to an new interim home at 135 Prospect Street for the renovations to HGS to create a new Humanities Hub. A modern graduate student dormitory at 272 Elm street opened summer 2018, housing 84 students. HGS will be closed for renovations Summer 2018-2020. A new permanent home for the McDougal Center will be determined at a later date.

The HGS Common Room's Painted Ceiling - a Masterpiece Restored

Through the gift of Alfred McDougal '53 and Nancy Lauter, the Common Room Ceiling at HGS was restored in 1997 by John Canning & Co., Ltd., of Cheshire, Connecticut. The painted Common Room ceiling is one of the architectural delights of HGS. Originally designed in 1932 to reflect the breadth of knowledge taught in the Yale Graduate School in its various departments, the ceiling became blackened over time by dirt and smoke, obscuring most of the imagery, and knowledge of its meaning was nearly lost. Archival research undertaken in the 1990s, and the 1997 cleaning and restoration funded by the McDougal Gift have re-integrated this colorful treasure into the life of the University as a historical artifact of the Graduate School.

Originally, Rogers wanted the Common Room's painted wood & plaster ceiling to resemble the Sala Magna of the Chiarmaonte Palace, a late-medieval palazzo in Palermo, Sicily. The Chiaramonte ceiling represents a condensed medieval encyclopedia, a compendium of the knowledge of its time. It has been recently restored as part of the University of Palermo.

Painted by artist Arnold Floegel in 1931-32, the Common Room ceiling at HGS likewise portrays human knowledge, but as reflected in the fields of study of the Graduate School in 1932 (sorry genetics and computer science!). 

  • The program of the Common Room ceiling begins near the doors to the Dining Hall, with an academic procession in which robed faculty and graduates are followed by allegorical figures such as the Muses, the Fates, Justice, Athena, Pallas, and Flora.
  • The rest of the decorative program is composed of brief, narrative vignettes on the major cross beams, drawn from famous works of ancient, medieval, and modern literature; illustrations of students and professors in the various disciplines going about their work; more abstract symbols representing various departments, and even scientific formulas. 
  • Medallions of major thinkers and writers, and seals of varied universities adorn the corbels or brackets.
  • The major beam running the length of the room has astronomical symbols next to astrological ones - Mars the planet and Mars/Aries the constellation.

*Look up- Can you find something related to your field of study in the Common Room Ceiling?


Information researched by Ashley Jones, Amy Kurtz (both History of Art Graduate Students at the time), Lisa Brandes, and others.