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The Duncan ‘Graduates’ With Honors

It was a cold February night in 1978 when I first arrived in New Haven. Needing a place to stay before I found permanent residence, I checked into the Duncan Hotel on 1151 Chapel St., following a recommendation from a local who thought the place would give me a one-of-a-kind initiation to the city.

My fourth-floor, shabby-not-so-chic room faced the street, as well as a flickering “E” in the building-length, vertical, neon sign proclaiming its name. I imagined myself a character in “The Hot L Baltimore,” a Lanford Wilson play about the denizens of a down-on-its-heels residence with similarly deficient signage.

It was a spare, film-noir kind of room in an era when the word “boutique” was used for fancy hat shops, not hotels. There were faded Damask-don’t-tell curtains, silver-painted radiators, and paint-chipped walls. But it was affordable, convenient, and since I was very young, I thought it was rather funky and fine.

The Duncan’s entrance and lobby were its best parts, with its rounded marquee, large, checkered tiles, a still-manned elevator, and quirky-but-genial staff that could have been cast in a Coen Brothers film.

It was there, too, that many actors were housed during their Yale Rep runs. I remember interviewing actress Barbara Baxley, who was starring in Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” As the tell-all veteran lounged on her bed in this glamour-less setting, I felt privileged to be invited into such a personal space and intimate conversation, but also a bit melancholy about the life of the itinerant actor.

There were also about three dozen folks who lived at the Duncan as their permanent residence who were not only fixtures at the hotel, but of the city, too. My husband made friends with one, an elderly, elegant gentleman and Yale School of Drama grad (’33), Marcus Merwin. He called the Duncan his home for many years, and still today, whenever we walk by the building’s second story, front-facing, bay-window room, we think warmly about him.

Over time, I would learn that this introduction to the city via the Duncan would be one many of my friends would say they had, too. In its own way, the hotel reflected the checkered fortunes of the city itself over the centuries, from glory to glum, from redevelopment to decline to resurgence in its present gentrified 21st century revival.

History takes in three centuries

The five-story building was erected in 1894 as the Majestic Apartments before it was sold to H. Butler Duncan in the 1920s and made into a hotel. The Shapiro family purchased the hotel in 1950 and operated it for two generations. Stirling Shapiro managed and ran the Duncan for nearly half a century. In 2017, he sold the hotel for $8 million to AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago developer that for the past seven years created modern boutique hotels in university-anchored cities such as Ann Arbor, Michigan., Athens, Georgia., Berkeley, California and Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2018, the hotel was closed for renovations, redesign, and updated infrastructure. Its remaining few residents were relocated, and in the fall of 2019, the hotel reopened with its 34,500 square feet and 72 new rooms.

It not only has a new/old look, but it has a new name: The Graduate. Like the same-titled iconic ‘60s film, it straddled contrasting cultures. GKV Architects oversaw the renovation project while the Graduate Hotel’s in-house design team took charge of the décor, which is both playful and traditional, and washed in boola-boola blue.

“Though Yale didn’t work with us directly, the design team worked closely with Yale alumni, professors and locals,” says Dominic Ruggieri, general manager of The Graduate. “In the beginning, we sent people to the city to meet with people to get an understanding of the history of New Haven and the Yale community and to see what resonates the most with people.”

So many of the familiar aspects of the hotel remained and were upgraded. The black and white tiles in the lobby have a new glisten, as does the pressed tin ceilings. Wood paneled walls were polished and look as if they were just installed. Despite ubiquitous cell phones, a pair of wooden phone booths remain, but their purpose now is to solely have a direct line to order pizza from Pepe’s or Modern.

The century-old elevator is still there, too, but only as a curio, near the self-operated ones, but still poised for a comeback. “It’s the oldest hand-operated elevator in Connecticut,” says Ruggieri.

At the time of opening, the elevator was up and running,  but after the pandemic closing and subsequent re-opening with a smaller staff, the antique elevator has not been used. “It is still able to be used, but we’re trying to find more unique uses for it.”

Other special touches

Also featured prominently are The Graduate’s public places in the front lobby area — game rooms, library rooms, coffee shops, lounges — for anyone wishing just to come and study, read, wait, play, or just hang. There are also private spaces, too, including a large banquet facility deep into the back recesses of the building that the general public never knew even existed.

Also coming back to life is the basement eatery, the Old Heidelberg, which closed in the ‘90s but is now reopened as a bar with a light-food menu — think bratwurst and pretzels. And yes, the wood tables with the deep-carved initials from long-gone students remain. “It’s intimate, cozy, with a cool bar, blue-collar atmosphere,” says Ruggieri.

There are now 72 instead of 90 rooms, and they are decorated somewhere between hip and twee with bulldog-patterned carpets that also feature images of Mory’s Cup. Black silhouettes of Yale alum act as wall border decorations. Room keys are student ID’s. Prices for rooms start at $199.

Another historic touch is the hotel’s original registry, which is on special display. Ruggieri says he has not yet scoured the hundreds of pages to see if there were any signatures from a Bush, Clinton, Rodham, or Streep, but one wouldn’t be surprised to see more than a few Mr. and Mrs. Smiths.

Another community connection is with the hotel’s Sweet Dream Society, an immersive three-month artist-in-residence program to help artists in the early steps of their careers, hosted at Graduate hotels across the country.

Just months after it reopened, the new Graduate closed its doors as the pandemic began in March of 2020. It reopened cautiously later that summer, but with Zoom classes, virtual gatherings, and lack of grand graduation ceremonies and football games, its follow-up to its optimistic launch proved challenging.

“It was difficult for everybody, obviously, from what we thought would be a week or two to a complete closing down that turned into three months,” says Ruggieri. “As part of the re-opening, we implemented Graduate Cares, a health and safety program that we did with Proctor and Gamble and the Cleveland Clinic.”

The Graduate joins New Haven’s hotel boom, which began with the opening of The Study next door, and was followed by the new Blake Hotel on High Street, which also opened in 2019. Also on the horizon is a new hotel in the iconic former Pirelli building on Long Wharf Drive (also known as the Armstrong Rubber Building), now under construction. All of the hotel growth no doubt is spurred by the growing biotech and medical research complexes in New Haven along with Yale’s own building expansion.

Visitors will now have a wide range of hotel options to choose from, including one grand dame of a building that has graduated to a higher degree.