Early History

Brad Kho, TD ‘94

The headline in the New York Times on June 21, 1934, read “Yale Gets Funds for New College.” Yale President J.R. Angell announced that another gift by Edward S. Harkness, class of 1897, would support the building of the ninth and the next-to-last residential college (in the 1930’s). According to Angell, the college would be named Timothy Dwight College in honor of two of Yale’s Presidents, Timothy Dwight, Yale’s eighth president from 1795-1817, and his grandson, Yale’s twelfth president from 1886- 1899. Designed by James Gamble Rogers, class of 1889, the college would be ready for occupancy in September of 1935, to be built at an estimated cost Of $1,300,000. The following January, Angell named James Grafton Roger ‘05, dean of the University of Colorado Law School and Assistant Secretary of State from 1931-33, the first Head of College of Timothy Dwight College.

The Timothy Dwights were two of Yale’s most illustrious presidents. Timothy Dwight the elder was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the Yale-educated, former president of Princeton. Born in 1752, the elder Timothy was said to be a remarkably precocious child. He reportedly learned the entire alphabet in one lesson and was reading the Bible at age four. He entered Yale when he was thirteen years old, graduating in 1769. Within a few years he had written one of the first noted American poems, “Conquest of Canaan.”

In 1886 his grandson, Timothy Dwight the Younger, succeeded Noah Porter as president.
The younger Timothy became known as the “Father of the University,” for it was under his
direction that Yale became a university rather than a college surrounded by separate
graduate schools. In honor of the Dwights, TDers were nick-named Prexies, a slang term for presidents (typically college presidents).

TD opened on schedule on September 23, 1935, but was over budget, costing $2,000,000. The Yale Alumni Weekly called it “one of the most architecturally satisfying colleges.” Built in the Georgian Colonial Style, the college recalls the architecture of Old Brick Row, where Old Campus stands today. As described in a recent pamphlet published by the Secretary of the University, “the architecture reproduces the style of the period of the first Timothy. The Longmeadow brown sandstone of the main entrance, the brick work with white trim, the green shutters, all are of Federal inspiration. Across the court from the main entrance, a pillared representation of a New England town hall, suggestive in detail of the early classical revival, houses the Lounge, the Dining Hall, and the Library. In the Dining Hall, the heavy, weathered, hand-hewn beams and the circular light window at the southern end are also of the Federal period; the teakwood tables recall the Eastern trade of the times, and the chairs are style after the ‘captain’s chairs’ found in the whaler’s houses of Nantucket and New Bedford. In harmony with the general style are such details as the knotty-pine panellings of various rooms, the brass doorknobs, and the stars in the lighting fixtures of the Fellows’ Lounge. The doors of the dormitory entries are replicas of the New Haven house doors of the early 19th century.”

The University originally built TD to house 180 students and a number of fellows. The typical suite consisted of two bedrooms (contrary to popular belief, the smaller bedroom was not for a servant) and a living room. The most expensive single, at $175 per semester, was room 1578 because it had a bedroom, a living room, and a private bath. The most expensive doubles, at $315 a semester, were the present-day first floor quads on sophomore wall. Room 1612 was the cheapest room in TD at $55 a semester.

In 1935, the Yale Daily News called the TD dining hall “a model of tasteful furnishing in the simplicity of colonial style.” In those days students would sit down at a table and a waitress would present them with menus and order slips. Upon ordering, the waitresses would bring out each course individually. TD’s first dinner included roast leg of lamb and parslied potatoes. On special occasions, there was more than the typical fare. The posters announcing the college’s first informal dinner in October read: “Beer will be served with dinner Monday at 6:15. The fellows will be there and there will be singing.”

There was not singing, however, when in TD’s inaugural year a number of plaster ceilings collapsed in the college. The first ceiling fell on Robert Sayre, Jr. in room 1648 on January 10, 1936, less than four months after the college first opened. According to the Yale Daily News, 75 square feet of plaster collapsed on Sayre, and it “took the entire entryway to get him out” since he was “plastered.” Two weeks later, the ceilings in rooms 1647 and 1649 also collapsed. The University ordered the mass evacuation of all TDers, and students temporarily moved to the gym, Old Campus, fraternities, other colleges, and even the Head of College’s house. The students returned a week later, after the University tore all the ceilings down and cleaned everything up. Actual re-plastering did not occur until the following summer. Prior to the evacuation, one clever student, Henry Oliver ‘38, posed for the Yale Daily News wearing a football helmet to protect himself from falling plaster. Building inspectors eventually determined that the problem with the plaster was a chemical malfunction of its bonding coat.

The plaster fiasco served to bring the young TD community closer together as they were subjected to bad press and tongue-in-cheek ribbing throughout the residential colleges. The Prexies bounced back in style, celebrating their experience and homecoming with the first Plaster Dinner. Rogers composed a number of songs satirizing what he called the “Plastercine Age,” the most popular of which was “Break, Plaster, Break,” sung to the tune off “Wake, Freshmen, Wake.” The place cards for dinner were all pieces of plaster with the student’s names on them. For years, the Plaster Dinner was an annual tradition until students no longer knew what it was for. Many years later, in the 1970’s, the TD Social Activities Committee sponsored Mr. Plaster dances, but students eventually forgot about the tradition altogether.

As they are today, intramural sports were an important aspect of college life in 1935. TD had a miserable first fall season, with tackle and touch football both finishing near the bottom of the standings. Despite a second place finish in hockey in the winter, the Prexies entered their first spring in ninth place out of ten. But TD vaulted into fourth by the end of the year by winning the spring season. Their victory was largely due to the success of the TD baseball team, which even had its own uniforms emblazoned with large “TD”s. The “Prexy Nine” only lost one game en route to a regular season tie, but destroyed rivals Vanderbilt (later part of Silliman College) and Branford in the play-offs to claim TD’s first championship in any sport. The Prexies went on to beat Harvard’s intramural baseball champions as well, and the entire college celebrated with a Field Day and picnic at the home of one of the fellows in Woodbridge, Connecticut. Although Saybrook took the Tyng Cup that year, the future was TD’s, as the college would claim its first of many Tyng Cups the next year in 1937.