This Was a Man!
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Everything is context. To explain the importance of Vincent J. Scully, Jr.’s profound effect on the students who lived in Morse College from 1969 to 1971 at Yale University requires context. You need to understand Yale’s “residential college” system and you need to understand 1969 to 1971. And then you need to understand Vincent J. Scully, Jr. who was (in that hackneyed and worn out term) “a force of Nature,” himself.
Vincent Scully passed away on Thursday, November 30, 2017 at the age of 97. A good, long life marred only by the Parkinson’s he lived with at the end. For generations of Yale students, quite literally, he is still a whirling dervish of brilliant insights they remember teaching “Introduction to Art History” in the Law School Auditorium in New Haven. His influence on modern architects and architecture can’t be measured. As Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic (and former Scully student, Yale ’72) put it:
I think he probably did more than anyone else over the last 60 years to affect not just architecture but architecture culture as well. He showed us that architecture is not just forms in a vacuum. It’s about what kind of society you want to build.
For those of us who lived in Morse College from 1969 to 1971, though, Scully was far more than the esteemed Art Historian he was to the rest of the world. He was the thoughtful, passionate, caring mentor who also happened to be the “Master” of Morse College. For those not familiar with the Yale residential college system, Wikipedia describes it thusly:
Yale University has a system of fourteen residential colleges with which all Yale undergraduate students and many faculty are affiliated. Inaugurated in 1933, the college system is considered the defining feature of undergraduate life in Yale College, and the residential colleges serve as the residence halls and social hubs for most undergraduates. Each college is led by a Head of College (formerly Master) who is usually a tenured professor, and a Dean in charge of student affairs and residential life. University faculty and administrators are affiliated with the colleges as fellows, and some live or keep offices in the college along with the Dean and Head. All fourteen colleges are built in an enclosing configuration around a central courtyard; all but two employ revivalist architectural styles popularized at Yale by James Gamble Rogers. Each has a dining hall, library, recreational facilities, a Master's House, apartments for resident fellows and Dean, and 250 to 400 student rooms, with most arranged in suites. Most reside in the colleges after their freshman year, during which they reside on the university's Old Campus. In addition to sharing common residence and dining facilities, students plan events, lectures, and social activities within their college, and compete against other colleges in a yearlong intramural sports championship.
Indeed, one’s residential college defines a great deal of an undergraduate’s "Yale Experience.” You may have noted that “all but two employ revivalist architectural styles.” The two that don’t, Morse and Stiles, were built in the early 1960’s and designed by Eero Saarinen, styled after a Tuscan Village, with “a reinforced rubble aggregate concrete wall system that was used for the entire complex, with large pieces of granite set in tan mortar concrete and stone walls.” (docomomo.us.com) They are on the northern edge of the campus and clearly do not ”fit in” with the rest of Yale’s neo-Gothic and Georgian style. Which made them a perfect place for Vince Scully to oversee and returns us to context.
In the spring of 1968 John Hall, a Far Eastern scholar and the Master of Morse College, announced he would be leaving the post as the Head of the residential college. As a member of the Morse College Council (the “student government”) I spearheaded a drive insisting the student’s should have a larger “say” in who the next Master would be. Hall, a very nice man, seemed distant and cold to many of us —- we didn’t really have much interaction with him. I was a “Master’s Aide” (my bursary/student work job) and couldn’t say I had any kind of “relationship” with Professor Hall. I was on the barricades proposing we get Norman Mailer or some other luminary as our next Master.
In their infinite wisdom, Kingman Brewster and “the powers that be” selected Vincent Scully to be the next Master at Morse. It was a brilliant choice. Scully started in the fall of 1969, just as the first class of women were admitted to the College in the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes. It was a match made in heaven.
Continuing in my role as a Master’s Aide, I immediately found Scully accessible, energetic, and brilliant (I was far from the first to make those observations). He seemed to like my energy and enthusiasm (particularly my public high school, “Boy, do I love Yale” approach to the place —- which he shared) and he allowed me to blatantly break the university rule of “no pets in the dormitories” when I brought home “Maxwell,” the stray pup I found in front of Hungry Charlie’s (now “Toad’s Place”), our late night burger joint. Scully loved Max and essentially made him the Morse mascot/dog. My role in the Master’s Office increased and, by Springtime, I was named “Chief Aide” for Senior year (even though I would be living off campus, another breach of University policy). Before that would happen, though, we faced MayDay —- a weekend of political demonstrations fraught with possible danger and destruction.
Scully not only allowed us to set up the first “Information/Communication Center” on campus (a model that was replicated across campus) but also gave us free rein in planning Morse College’s use when the expected 100,000 to 250,000 demonstrators/”outside agitators” arrived for the weekend. We withstood the weekend without serious incident and were horrified that Monday, May 4th, as we watched students gunned down at Kent State. We knew we had the complete and total support --- and love --- from Vincent Scully, particularly after that weekend.
As 1970-71 developed I got to spend a lot of time with Vince Scully, having dinner with him once a week (part of my “Chief Master’s Aide” responsibilities), and often walking around New Haven with him, talking about “the life of the college,” but often discussing the events of the day. It was at those dinners that I learned he had been a Marine in World War II --- something that seemed so incongruous with his sensitive, empathetic core (particularly compared with “the Marine Corps Generals” we see onscreen today). And it was walking around New Haven with him one day that I really began to learn about architecture from Vince. I forget which street, exactly, we were walking down when Scully literally recoiled, as if struck by lightning, exclaiming, “Oh my God, Snake, do you see that?” I had no idea what he was talking about --- and that’s when my tutorial began. With a sweep of his arm he said, “Look, look at that building! Look what it’s doing to this street!” As we proceeded down the block, I was given an in-depth explanation of how to look at architecture in the built environment. It was stunning. It was brilliant. It was Vince. It changed the way I saw the world.
And that’s what Vince Scully did for so many of my peers, as well as for so many generations of students at Yale. Years later, some time in the early 1990’s, Scully was giving a lecture at Christie’s in Manhattan for the New York Preservation Society. A friend knew my connection to Scully and got me a ticket for the event. Needless to say, I was thrilled and when I got there I found him pacing offstage before delivering his lecture. Totally enthused at seeing him, I all but ran up and greeted him. He looked up, gave me a brief “Hello,” and, to my mind, blew me off. (I was, needless to say, shocked and a bit “hurt”) He proceeded to deliver a brilliant lecture, promoting preservation of buildings around New York but also describing how NYC /Manhattan had three rivers running through it --- The Hudson, the East River, and Park Avenue. He then described Park Avenue as a beautiful river flowing up and down the center of Manhattan, with its lanes of streaming traffic separated by a beautiful green mall. And then, he dramatically paused, and looked at us, revealing the atrocity, the monstrosity that the MetLife (formerly PanAm) Building was --- damming up that Central River! "Just rotate it 90 degrees and the river flows!" It was brilliant, It was Scully at his best. He continued, describing how Route 95 was a social engineering project, clearly dividing neighborhoods along racial lines from Boston to D.C. Again, brilliant. Again, Vince.
After the lecture I lined up to thank him and say good-bye and was as shocked as I had been “hurt” when he gleefully threw his arm over my shoulder and proclaimed, “Snake, I’m so glad you’re here --- come meet these people.” I spent the rest of the evening meeting people from the NY Preservation Society and catching up with Vince, realizing that the early greeting was not a snub. He was so intense --- I was interrupting his preparation for the presentation. Once he was done with that, we were players in the locker room celebrating a victory, old comrades in arms. I was thrilled and he was that brilliant, generous Vince I had come to know at Morse College back in 1969.
In 1966, when I was scouting out colleges to apply to Time Magazine produced a cover page entitled "Great Teachers.” There were ten professors on the cover and Vincent J. Scully, Jr. was one of them --- 46 years old and at the height of his career (which would continue, unabated, into the next century!). Yale was my long-shot school, my “reach.” Looking back, I have to say that Scully’s presence on that cover did influence my applying there. Little did I know, or could I have imagined, that I would get to work with him so closely only three years later! I also have to say --- and I’m really happy I got to tell Vince this numerous times, long after I left Yale --- that Vince Scully’s greatest influence on me was to become a teacher --- and, later, a teacher of teachers. He was the teacher I wanted to be --- right up until the day I retired.
I was sad to hear about Vince’s passing on Thursday. I knew he was struggling with Parkinson’s, having talked to Tappy, his wife, several months ago. But Vince Scully has simply moved on to another plane. His legacy is all around us not only in the buildings that have been created as a result of his influence but also in all of the students, particularly that Morse College group from ’69 to ’71, who saw the world differently, and for the better, because of Vince Scully.
In the fall of 2007 I was working in the the Yale Teacher Ed Program and got to attend several of Scully’s “Intro to Art History” lectures in the Art Gallery Lecture Hall. We had lunch together afterwards and, as was always the case, I had to talk to him about something in his lecture that was an idea I had never thought of before. That’s what it was like to be Vincent Scully’s student or friend. You could not spend any amount of time with him and not learn something new, not see the world in a new light, and not feel energized by his passion and the power of his intellect.
That was Vince.