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Tomb raiders: The clubhouses of Yale’s secret societies

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Good luck getting in

The Skull and Bones tomb.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

We don’t know much about the secret societies of Yale University. But one thing we do know is that while each club is small—membership is often capped at 15 senior undergrads per society—the collective alumni represents some of the most powerful figures in the public realm.

Skull and Bones—arguably the most famous of Yale’s secret societies—alone counts President William Howard Taft, President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, and former Secretary of State John Kerry among its alumni.

And like any established club, many have their own clubhouse around New Haven. But unlike normal clubhouses, members are rarely seen entering or leaving. Clubhouse walls are so thick—made of sandstone and marble in some cases—that sound never escapes. And there’s no chance of a glimpse at what goes on inside, because they are also windowless.

The name for these curious clubhouses? Tombs.

“Secret societies originated as what you and I know as fraternities. The first fraternity house was a log cabin with sealed windows at Kenyon College,” says David Alan Richards, author of Skull and Keys: The Hidden History of Yale’s Secret Societiesand a member of Skull and Bones himself. “There were air vents in the roof, but the whole concept of having sealed windows was the notion of privacy.”

The Scroll and Key tomb.
Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

While the Kenyon log cabin was built with function in mind, Richards expanded that when architects were tapped for Yale tombs, designs took on a more referential form, often echoing religious architecture.

The first tomb at Yale was Skull and Bones, completed in 1856, about 25 years after the society was founded. Alumni put up the money of the project, forming a corporation to buy land directly across the street from student dorms. The practice of forming a corporation through alumni support and commissioning a clubhouse would be repeated by other Yale societies.

Bones hired architect Alexander Jackson Davis, who designed a clubhouse built out of brownstone in an Egyptian revival style: “All the buildings around the Bones tomb were Georgian brick,” says Richards. “This was a statement to Yale that Skull and Bones was here to stay.”

In his book, Richards pinpoints the exact Egyptian temples which inspired the clubhouse, like the Temple of Thebes at Kornou and the Temple of Karmac. When the Bones tomb originally opened, it was just a third of the size that it is today (when facing the tomb, the original bit is the leftmost portion of the facade). As time went on, expansions were made to the side and back.

“The alumni put up the money for the tomb with a few conditions: First, they would be free to use the tomb, but they also required Bonesmen to never bring liquor inside,” adds Richards, who says that club life emphasizes learning about each other rather than drinking and revelry. “That prohibition is still enforced today.”

An architectural drawing from Richard Morris Hunt for the Scroll and Key tomb.
Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

As Bones became more established, other societies were looking to make more permanent holds around Yale.

Scroll and Key, founded in 1842, hired Gilded Age favorite Richard Morris Hunt—who had designed mansions like The Breakers, and Biltmore House for the Vanderbilt family—to design their tomb.

“Hunt built in a Moorish revival, almost mosque-like style,” says Richards. “The facade highly decorative and colorful stonework in yellow and purple.” An early design for the clubhouse shows that original intentions were for a structure much larger than what was ultimately built.

The societies Book and Snake (founded in 1863) and Berzelius (founded in 1848) built their clubhouses as Greek temples. “The Book and Snake tomb, built in 1901, is supposed to be the most perfect reproduction of a Greek temple in the United States,” says Richards. “It even has a roof made of marble plates.”

The original tomb for the society Wolf’s Head (founded in 1883) was built in a Dutch Ratskeller style by the venerable triumvirate of McKim, Meade, and White.

“When Wolf’s Head was getting its footing right after being formed, early members essentially invented a history,” says Richards. “Members went to Yale alumni from classes before 1883 that hadn’t been in either Bones or in Keys and offered honorary membership in exchange for a contribution. They were able to raise money for their clubhouse that way.”

The Wolf’s Head tomb.
Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Wolf’s Head has since moved clubhouses. The original clubhouse is now owned by Yale University and used for office space.

These dark, formidable buildings rightfully attracted the attention and curiosity of those who were not members. Richards says that in the 19th century, the societies weren’t averse to leaning into this public excitement. “During the Bones initiation, new members would go into the tomb one by one and an arm painted blood red would reach out from behind the swinging iron door and pull the neophyte in.”

Now, we haven’t really talked about the interiors yet. And there’s a reason for that! Not a lot is known about what lies inside the tombs. Richards has only been in two tombs himself—Skull and Bones and Manuscript Society (we’ll be getting to that one soon).

There have been a few break-ins to the clubhouses. Skull and Keys: The Hidden History of Yale’s Secret Societies details an 1876 break-in of the Skull and Bones clubhouse, which resulted in the floorplan of the original building being published. But Richards says that the interiors are sort of what you’d expect from a fraternity, sorority, or other sort of clubhouse: There are meeting rooms, a library, a dining room, and a kitchen, among others.

The Book and Snake tomb.
Photo by Henry Trotter / Creative Commons.

Not every tomb was commissioned. In 1912, the relatively new society Elihu—which was formed about a decade prior—acquired a “three-story, colonial-era white clapboard house facing the New Haven Green, built circa 1762 - 1776,” says Richards in his book.

The house has ties to the Revolutionary War, when it was infamously owned by a loyalist. The club carried out extensive renovations on the property after acquiring it. One of the renovations? Sealing up the windows from the inside.

The construction of tombs was also not relegated to the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Manuscript Society—which Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper were members of—was formed in 1951 with a clubhouse built by a Yale architecture professor King-lui Wu in 1952,” says Richards. “It was a club for artists, and they consciously wanted something modernist—not in the tradition of the other tombs.”

The Berzelius tomb.
Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The resulting design is a sleek building in white-glazed brick with a circular design created by Josef Albers, artist and Yale faculty member, carved into the street-facing wall of brick. “Albers...thought a circle would be a fitting symbol of the bond uniting members of the society,” says a short article in the Yale alumni magazine.

Manuscript was the last tomb to be built—but that doesn’t mean more clubhouses couldn’t be on the horizon. “There’s a society called Spade and Grave, which was re-established in 1999 after going in and out of business over the course of the 20th century,” says Richards. “They recently bought a house in New Haven. It’s not windowless, but it’s also not marked.”

“There may be other, newer societies I don’t know about with a history long enough to have alumni invested in their long-term survival. It’s easier to survive if you’ve got a place to go— if you’ve got alumni returning saying ‘This is great you should enjoy this senior year experience. There’s nothing like it, and you won’t have a crack at it again.’”