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Learning the lay of the land at Yale

NEW HAVEN -- It's hard to tell where the city ends and the college begins.

Spreading out north and west from the green, the 3,310-acre Yale University campus attracts more than 550,000 visitors annually to its museums, theater, lectures, concerts, exhibits, and architecture. To satisfy newcomers' curiosity, the Ivy League school offers free daily walking tours.

"We get 60,000 visitors a year at the center, and about 40,000 of them take the Tour Yale walk," said Sheila Pastor, director of the Mead Visitor Center at Yale, where the tours begin. (This figure does not include prearranged theme walks for groups or the Office of Undergraduate Admissions weekday tours for prospective students.)

The visitors center is headquartered in the Pierpont House , built as a private residence in 1767. In 2002, Yale restored the building and created illustrated exhibits about the school's history and notable graduates, among them five US presidents and Nobel laureates.

"It was a wonderful renovation," said Pastor. "This is the front door to the university."

Undergraduates lead the informative 90-minute tours. Before being selected for a coveted guide position, students master a booklet about Yale and New Haven, take written tests about the material, and do audition tours. Additional training happens on the job. Head tour guide Larry Wise, a junior math major from North Carolina, said 200 students applied in the spring for this year's 15 openings.

"We do 1,200 tours a year including the admissions office and special theme tours," Wise said in a telephone interview. "It's a great way to give something back to Yale. I love the people I work with and meeting the diverse visitors. It also reminds me that it's a wonderful privilege to be going to school here." (Yale's current enrollment is about 5,300 undergraduate and 6,000 graduate students.)

On a warm November morning, our guide, Kevin, a sophomore from Buffalo, welcomed about a dozen adults, teenagers, and children to a morning tour. Outside, he set the scene with a recap of Yale's 1701 founding in Old Saybrook as the Collegiate School of Connecticut. In 1716, New Haven enticed the school to move . Two years later, the name was changed in honor of benefactor Elihu Yale. In discussing the Pierpont House and the early city history, Kevin revealed why the green could be haunted. Civic leaders decided a burial ground in the 16-acre common was inappropriate, so the headstones were moved to nearby Grove Street Cemetery. However, several thousand bodies were left in place.

He shared other anecdotes throughout the tour, among them the lowdown on the Nathan Hale statue in Old Campus. Rather than being a true image of the 1773 Yale grad and Revolutionary War hero, it's a Yalie from 1914. Because there are no portraits of Hale, sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt chose a model from a student lineup. On the way out of Old Campus, everyone rubbed the foot on the statue of Theodore D. Woolsey , president of the university from 1846-71 , for good luck, a campus tradition.

Yale's distinctive campus architecture was a popular topic. Architect James Gamble Rogers (a Yale graduate) modeled his designs on the medieval Oxford and Cambridge campuses in England and aged them using various techniques, among them pouring acid down the 215-foot-tall Harkness Tower. He created Sterling Memorial Library as his "cathedral" of learning. The tour stays outside, though one can return to check out telephone booths designed to look like confessionals, a barrel-vaulted ceiling, and the portrait of "Mother Yale."

Kevin also talked about the underground network connecting residences and other facilities, the students' Halloween night symphony concert in 3,000-seat Woolsey Hall, and how he uses the Sterling Library, one of 22 on campus, with 4 million books on 13 floors.

The tour ended at Hewitt Quad , home of University Commons, Woolsey Hall, and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Beinecke is an unusual building of 100 squares of Vermont marble laid out to mimic a booklet of S&H Green Stamps. Beinecke exhibits are open to the public, so after the tour we popped in to see a Gutenberg Bible , original Audubon paintings, and other displays.

Another way to explore the campus is a self-guided tour of the sculpture collection that represents a who's who of the field, including Alexander Calder, Maya Lin, and Isamu Noguchi . The brochure-map "Public Art at Yale " is available at Info New Haven at Chapel and College streets. It lists 22 sites, nine that can be viewed by appointment (203-432-2300). The brochure estimates the tour takes up to two hours.

Tour Yale
Yale University
New Haven
(203-432-2301, for groups)
Campus tours begin at the university's Mead Visitor Center at 149 Elm St., facing the New Haven Green. Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 1:30. A video is shown15 minutes before the tour. Free.

Jan Shepherd, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at