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College Campuses as Affordable Travel Destinations

By Jane Margolies
March 1, 2009
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ON a cold Saturday morning in February, Shawn Pelak and David Parent were at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., soon after the doors opened. But the couple, from Ann Arbor, Mich., wasn’t there to hit the books. Ms. Pelak and Mr. Parent were spending the weekend in Hartford, 45 minutes north, and after downloading a walking tour of the Yale campus from the school’s Web site, they had gotten in their car for a first-hand look.

Pausing in the entrance hall of the library, which was inspired by Gothic cathedrals, they peered up at the leaded-glass windows and vaulted ceiling. “We’re always curious about how other colleges do things,” said Mr. Parent, a management consultant, who, like his wife, graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Whenever we’re near a campus, we check it out.”

College students, you’ve got company. The grassy quads and ivy-covered buildings that attract prospective applicants also make schools of higher education enticing for those with no interest in matriculating. Visitors can partake of world-class art collections and film screenings, not to mention more unusual offerings like the burial sites of Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, on the campus of Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va. All this, without the pressure of studying for exams, or anteing up tuition.

Steve Lake, a pit boss at a casino in Las Vegas, became so enamored of the hallowed academic ambience after visiting Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on his honeymoon to Boston in 1984 that he made touring colleges his hobby. This past October, he said, he dropped in on his 500th campus. “I try to eat in a cafeteria or go to a bookstore or a game,” he explained. “I try to live in the moment.”

The schools themselves, eager to sweep aside town-gown schisms of the past, say they are happy to play host.

Stanford University — whose palmy, sculpture-dotted campus in Palo Alto, Calif., is considered one of the prettiest in the country — recently redesigned its Web pages, adding a section addressed to “Tourists and First-time Visitors.” This summer the school’s visitor center will relocate from a ticket office in an auditorium lobby to spacious quarters with nearby parking. “Tour buses show up with their own guides and disgorge passengers,” said John Friesman, director of visitor relations, who estimates that 100,000 to 150,000 people come to the campus each year.

And while Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., recently decided to shutter its Rose Art Museum and sell works in its collection to shore up the school’s finances, elsewhere college museums — many of them free and open to the public, as stipulated in their charters — are fresh from construction projects, mirroring the general museum boom of the last decade.

The Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, which last year opened its Rafael Moneo-designed Chace Center gallery space, teams up with nearby hotels to offer travel packages in connection with high-profile exhibitions (tickets to a recent Dale Chihuly show were combined with a room at the Providence Biltmore). Hope Alswang, the museum director, said that 75 percent of its visitors were unaffiliated with the college. “When times are rough, maybe you can’t go to the Cape for a week,” said Ms. Alswang. “But you might come to town for a museum show and lunch.”

I decided to test this formula of college campus as inexpensive tourist destination with a quick, culturally edifying trip to New Haven. Long curious about the two fine-art museums at Yale, and having heard that a chic hotel, the Study at Yale, had opened in that same artsy part of the campus, I booked a room, printed out a calendar of events from the school’s Web site, and boarded an Amtrak train in New York on a Friday morning; in two hours, I was checking into my Chapel Street digs.

The Study at Yale — which plays up the academic connection with old-fashioned spectacles for its logo and a bookmark slipped into the sleeve for the electronic room key — did not disappoint. The lobby is a mod living room, furnished with clean-lined leather armchairs and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase full of art and architecture books. My seventh-floor room had a marble-floored bath, Tolomeo desk lamp, oak furniture with lightened finish and windows overlooking the slate roofs of the Yale campus.

An intriguingly titled lecture I’d circled on my events calendar — “Extraordinary Tourists,” about the Transcontinental Excursion of 1912, on offer at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies — was, alas, already under way, so I decided to get my bearings on a student-led campus tour departing from the Visitor Center, in a 1767 Federal house on Elm Street across from the New Haven Green.

Among the 12 other tourgoers also braving the 29-degree temperature that afternoon was Elisabeth Striedinger, a 28-year-old marketing assistant from Vienna and a graduate of the University of Vienna. Ms. Striedinger, who was taking time out from a three-week vacation in New York for the trip to New Haven, said she had seen Yale portrayed on the TV show “Gilmore Girls.” (Rory ends up going to school there.) “Everyone knows about Yale and the Ivy League,” she said. “Even in Austria.”

Our guide, Matt Eisen, a junior majoring in economics and political science, led us to Old Campus, the blocklong yard where Yale’s first buildings were constructed of brick in the mid-18th century. We also saw a couple of the school’s 12 residential colleges, modeled on those of Oxford and Cambridge universities in England. The neo-Gothic buildings that make up the Yale colleges, Mr. Eisen noted, were constructed in the 1930s with materials that were doctored to look hundreds of years old — the brick dribbled with acid, the panes for the windows purposefully mismatched, the slate roofs I’d admired from my hotel window composed of shingles whose edges had been methodically chipped before they were tucked into place.

After my tour I saw real, not ersatz, Gothic at the Yale Center for British Art — in the form of “The Thames at Westminster Stairs” by Claude de Jongh and intricately detailed oil paintings of the interiors of Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. The museum’s holdings, said to be the most comprehensive collection of British art outside Britain, swing from serene (the misty waterfront in “Nocturne in Blue and Silver,” by James McNeill Whistler) to severely buttoned-up (a room full of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, with staring eyes) to satirical (William Hogarth’s “Midnight Modern Conversation,” depicting supposedly respectable middle-class men who have drunk themselves into a stupor).

It’s all housed in a muscular 1977 building by Louis I. Kahn, who earlier had designed the Yale University Art Gallery, on the other side of Chapel Street. I’d just discovered the center’s Library Court — a triple-height, skylit space replete with comfy sofas from which you can take in monumental sporting scenes by the 18th-century painter George Stubbs — when the guards began to shoo everyone out.

Just as the arts have flourished in New Haven over the last decade, so, too, has the culinary scene, and I had my pick of Thai, Turkish and Cuban restaurants, in addition to my hotel’s Heirloom dining room with its nouvelle New England cuisine. Instead I headed to Wooster Street, the city’s Little Italy, for an authentic New Haven experience. The street is bookended by two pizza joints, Sally’s and Pepe’s, each with its rabid following — and long wait times. I joined the line shivering outside Pepe’s, the larger and brighter of two, and eventually was rewarded with a sizzling thin-crust pie that had been pulled out of a coal-fired oven on a wooden paddle with a 12-foot handle and unceremoniously plopped onto a paper-lined metal tray that the waitress slid onto my Formica table.

The Art Gallery, which I got to the next morning, after a peek into the Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, was also hopping. This is the university’s all-purpose art museum, with 185,000 objects from ancient times to today. Eighty to 85 percent of the gallery’s visitors are members of the general public, according to the press officer. Indeed a grandmother and her toddling granddaughter, and people seemingly of all ages in between, had shown up for “Picasso and the Allure of Language,” on the top floor of the Kahn-designed main building, which was constructed in 1953 and now gleams after its recent restoration. (The museum’s Gothic-style 1928 Swartwout hall, which has housed its American collection, is currently closed for its own renovation.)

The Picasso show explores the effect words had on the artist, and vice versa, pulling together some of his many paintings that incorporate lettering, his portraits of writers (including eight amusing lithographs of a jowly Balzac), and his own jottings (Picasso wrote hundreds of poems and two full-length plays). Some American works have been shoehorned into the third floor of the main building during the current renovation project. Under Kahn’s crisply honeycombed concrete ceiling, the dazzling “Brooklyn Bridge” canvas by Joseph Stella, with its pointed arches and colorful prisms evoking stained glass, brought Yale’s earlier building style to mind.

Sated with art, and having spent not much more than the cost of my hotel room (both museums are free), I left the building to grab my bags for the return trip to New York. Students from an architectural rendering class were lined up outside the Swartwout building, sketching the Center for British Art just across the street. Megan Boon, a sophomore from Simi Valley in California, scrutinized the center’s glass and matte-steel facade, and told me that she often spotted sightseers on campus. “People are always walking around, taking pictures of the buildings,” she said. “It reminds me how lucky I am to be here.”

YALE FOR THE WEEKEND

Amtrak and Metro North offer service from New York to Union Station in New Haven. From there, it’s a five-minute cab ride to the Yale campus. The university says that about 550,000 people visit annually.

Yale visitors can get information and tours at the Visitor Center (149 Elm Street; 203-432-2300; www.yale.edu/visitor).

Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel Street; 203-432-2800; www.yale.edu/ycba).

Yale University Art Gallery (111 Chapel Street; 203-432-0600; www.artgallery.yale.edu).

Sterling Memorial Library (120 High Street; 203-432-1810; www.library.yale.edu/rsc/sml).

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (121 Wall Street; 203-432-2977; www.library.yale.edu/beinecke).

At the Study at Yale (1157 Chapel Street; 866-930-1157; www.studyhotels.com) rooms start at $209.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (157 Wooster Street; 203-865-5762) serves pizza, and only pizza.

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