My name is Josie and I’m the editor-in-chief of the Herald for the 2022-23 academic year. Typically, I wouldn’t write for my own paper—my focus is supposed to be on the work of our contributors, and I really, really like it that way. But, given the news of our impending eviction by the Yale College Dean’s Office from our offices at 305 Crown St, I’m exercising my executive privilege (with the support of our editorial staff) to tell a little of the building’s history, and, in doing so, to make the case for why we should be allowed to stay. Dean Peck’s email hit my inbox the day after I submitted a profile of 305 Crown for an architecture class. This essay is adapted from that piece. I conducted research at Manuscripts and Archives, the Divinity School, in the online records of the Moody Bible Institute and of course on site at 305 Crown.
I want to make clear that we are the sole stewards of these stories. It’s students who made and maintained the space at 305 Crown, and who have kept its history alive. The administrators who want to see this building transformed into a shelving facility haven’t read the dusty books on the shelves, paged through our filing-cabinet archives, taped old covers and cartoons to chipping walls, or laughed themselves into a delirium during the eighth hour of layout. (I’m not sure they know how to laugh. What are the returns on laughter?)
They don’t come here. They don’t know what it’s like here. And I don’t want to go to school in their Wayfair catalog. These crusty wall-to-wall carpets and water-damaged ceilings are containers of possibility! We make things here. We tell stories.
For more on the efforts of the Herald—alongside several other prominent student organizations—to keep our space, see our open letter in this Monday’s edition of the Yale Daily News. If you’re up in arms about this, too, please consider writing to Melanie Boyd, Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Suppression, to let her know how you feel. Or, sign the petition here.
William Whiting Borden, class of 1909, was not impressed with Yale. During the fall of his freshman year, he wrote to his mother: “Nearly everyone uses a translation in his studies. The great majority smoke, go to the theater Saturday night and do their studying on Sunday. Rather a hopeless state of affairs!” But he wasn’t giving up on his peers: “I hope to be able to do something, by the grace of God, to help in the right direction.”
Borden started a prayer group which met every morning in the Dwight Hall chapel. By the end of the spring term, it had grown to hundreds of members. “Every man in the University must be reached,” he wrote in 1907. His biographer Mary Geraldine Taylor reported that by the time Borden graduated from Yale, a thousand students—from among a total undergraduate population of 1,300—were meeting regularly for prayer and Bible study. The campus was awash in a wave of evangelical fervor. Borden was a world unto himself, a planet commanding the tides.
More than a century later, Borden’s name is little remembered save within select missionary circles. His enduring legacy is the demure, decrepit brick building at 305 Crown Street: the Yale Hope Mission, which he founded and endowed during the winter of his sophomore year.
Now owned by the university administration, the Mission building is an unpresumptuous, practical structure, occupying two narrow lots on the north side of the street. Cinderblock walls and porcelain-tiled floors recall the interiors of turn-of-the-century American high schools. Most rooms on the upper floors were once bedrooms for the hundred-odd guests who slept at the Mission each night. The men’s bathrooms are equipped with partially disassembled showers. Open what you think is a closet and you’ll find a toilet that’s been clogged for decades. It’s apparent from these details that 305 Crown was designed as a homeless shelter; the Mission’s name is still emblazoned over the front door.
From its establishment in 1907 until its closure in 1968, the Yale Hope Mission offered hot meals, beds, showers, and help finding a job to down-and-out men in New Haven. The Mission’s services came at the nominal cost of two dollars a week, imposed to preserve the dignity of the destitute, though no one was turned away for lack of funds.
In the first decade of its existence, the Mission operated out of rented rooms on Court Street, an infamously seedy strip of townhouses that’s since become one of New Haven’s most desirable neighborhoods. In 1928, operations moved to a new, purpose-built structure at 305 Crown Street between York and High. The site was purchased and the four-story building constructed for the Mission at a cost of $170,000, the equivalent of nearly $3 million today. More than 90% of the total was drawn from the legacy Borden settled on the Mission when he died at age 25 of spinal meningitis. The Reverend Charles Erdman wrote in an obituary for Borden that, between the donations he made during his lifetime and those stipulated in his will, Borden gave more to the missionary movement than any man his age in the entire history of the Christian church.
Despite Borden’s largesse, the Mission operated on a shoestring budget, dependent on a staff of undergraduate volunteers to cook, clean, and counsel. $35,000 of its $50,000 annual budget was raised by the house guests, who paid what they could when they could for room and board. Construction on the Crown Street building began almost exactly a year before Black Tuesday. The need for the Mission’s services was urgent and ultra-visible during the Depression, and the student body rallied behind the cause, raising the rest of the money needed to finish 305 Crown.
Henry R. Luce, class of 1919, whose father—like Borden—was a Christian missionary to China, served as the treasurer of the Mission during this fundraising drive. He solicited donations through the Yale Daily News, which published an article asserting that “no more worthy cause exists in this city to-day… Here is an urgent need within five blocks of the college buildings—a college institution run by college men and doing the finest kind of work.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate, given Luce’s role in 305 Crown’s construction, that the building now houses several of the university’s student publications. The Herald and the Record—the weekly newspaper and the campus humor magazine—have offices side by side on the third floor. These cramped suites are places of creative autonomy. They are a museum of living history, a place of refuge for writers, artists, and first-years who don’t know where else to go on a Thursday night.
The administration’s inclination has always been to suppress rather than support these manifestations of student self-determination. Yale initially agreed to buy 305 Crown from the Mission in 1964, but the sale wasn’t finalized for another four years. A rancorous back-and-forth ensued. Both the university and the city of New Haven promised to find the organization a new space, but Reverend Lawson Willard, chairman of the Mission’s board of directors, reported that he never received any offers of help. Instead, Yale’s administration pressured the board to sell the property for the sum of $176,000—barely more than it had cost to build half a century earlier. Willard and his board secretary, David Byers, attributed the pressure to close the Mission’s doors to the changing character of New Haven’s downtown. The 238-unit University Towers apartment complex had just opened around the corner from 305 Crown. Byers alleged that the luxury property’s developers “don’t like the idea of having a mission for alcoholics around.” Willard told the News, “It’s another example of today’s belief that the best way to get rid of Skid Row is by pushing it out and away, but they’re still there and there’s no denying it.”
Today’s management similarly extols the virtues of student journalism; each year, the president hosts a dinner for the editors of the Herald and the Daily News. Deans and provosts serve up canapes and platitudes about the urgency of unflinching reportage in a Time of Great Division. But their actions betray their real beliefs. At this school-shaped hedge fund, austerity governs all. Vital components of student life are displaced from their proper place at the heart of the university by the bureaucratic machine. Make your paper! How sweet! Just do it somewhere else.
As the economy regained its footing from the Depression, and the secularism of the American midcentury set in, the Yale Hope Mission fell on hard times. The new religion was urban renewal, a program on which New Haven spent more funds per capita than any other American city. Its architects sought deliverance from blight and poverty rather than the religious persecution that first brought white settlers to southern Connecticut. The Mission’s unconditional offer of food and shelter, a Yale spokesperson alleged, created a cycle of dependency among the population it served.
Since the Mission was forced to shut down in 1968, 305 Crown Street has lived many lives. It briefly served as on-campus housing for graduate students. Then it was turned into studio spaces for the School of Art. Now it’s the property of the David Geffen School of Drama, recently renamed in recognition of a “transformational” $150 million gift from the entertainment executive. (The Herald, the Record, the Yale Political Union and various other student groups were allowed to hang on throughout these transitions.) Faculty nameplates on office doors were replaced overnight to reflect the change, though inquiries regarding the collapse of a section of the basement ceiling have gone unanswered.
As of last fall, plans for a brand-new dramatic arts building are reportedly in the works. And as of Thursday, 305 Crown is destined to become a storage facility. For now, though, the building stands as a monument to institutional neglect. The first floor has been retrofitted with an open-front staff mailbox facing the entrance, which confirms the extent of the building’s disuse from the moment you step foot inside. The only tenant to have received any mail in the last week is the Yale Anglers’ Journal, in whose box lay a folded-up piece of brown cardboard. (The Journal was a special-interest monthly devoted to the love of fish and fishing; it hasn’t published an issue since 2007.) The filthy fridge sitting to the right of the mailbox contains a single long-expired tube of Gogurt. The whitewash on the windowsills is flaking off, revealing rotting wood frames. Around the corner, the architrave of the side entrance is decorated with a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Come Unto Me.” An aspiring comedian has commented below in Sharpie: “Lol.”
This is not the kind of Bible study Bill Borden had in mind. But there remains something holy here. Though the building is no longer devoted to direct service, independently minded undergraduates are still trying to make something for their peers and of themselves here. Yale’s decision to evict us from our beloved, grimy, mesothelioma-inducing office spaces reflects a willful refusal to recognize that. It’s an authoritarian decree from a bloated, bureaucratic institution. It’s devastating, but it’s not unexpected. There is history here.