At Yale, the Immortal Handsome Dan

By Mark Simon

Handsome Dan I (1889-1897), was not only the original Yale Bulldog but also the first live collegiate mascot – and this month, he’s been reborn.

Larger than life and bronzed, he stands guard at Jensen Plaza outside the historic (1914) Yale Bowl, installed just in time for The Game against Harvard on November 19.  The Bulldogs have lost nine of the last 10 gridiron tiffs to the Pilgrims.   Something monumental had to be done, and as part of Centerbrook Architects’ work on Yale’s athletic campus, we were happy to oblige.

Handsome Dan I (of 17 in toto) was acquired from a New Haven blacksmith for a pittance.   He proceeded to take first prize in the Westminster Dog Show and see Crimson at Yale sporting events.  After Dan ascended into Blue Heaven, his master, a Yale grad, had him taxidermied, and returned the fetching result to his alma mater. Dan has remained on display ever since in the Payne Whitney Trophy Room.

His successors have served bravely.  They have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; survived kidnappings by Harvard students; summered on Martha’s Vineyard; suffered ejection from a Yale-Harvard Game (not just for attacking John Harvard, but also a mounted policeman); and played dead when asked if they’d rather die or lose to Harvard.

While master planning Yale’s Athletic Campus we discussed the possibility of Bulldog icons.  The new Jensen Plaza would have the names of all Yale football lettermen engraved in it granite pavers, but everyone felt the need for a more demonstrative, true-blue greeting.

As fate would have it, we were working concurrently on a master plan for the Yale Peabody Museum, and learned of the existence of Stuffed Dan, as well as the fact that my alma mater, the Yale School of Architecture, had the latest scanning and milling equipment. (Bow Wow) Wow, we had the technology and The Dog.  We could scan Dan and reproduce him in bronze at 1.5 times his actual size.

Suddenly, the idea was everyone’s pet project.  But, of course, it would be no walk in the park.  We needed a pro in the new arts of scanning and milling.  Avi Forman, a Yale architecture student, was recommended.  He bravely scanned stuffed Dan, who, to be candid, was a tad rank.  On the upside, he wasn’t drooling.  The result was a virtual, shiny-blue creation.

The next step was milling.  The milling machines, amazing but small, could only produce the dog in pieces – a body of foam with separate plaster extremities. So someone had to dexterously put them together, while also filling Dan out.

Centerbrook Associate Sue Wyeth, who had shepherded us through much of the foregoing, recalled that Michael Anderson, the Peabody’s Preparator, had trained as a scientific delineator and modelled the museum’s great bronze Torosaurus. Michael also is expert in canine anatomy.  He put Dan back together and then, muscle by muscle, rebuilt his legs by layering plasticene over the foam and plaster.  Dan was now 42 inches high and totally buff.

Next, the artisans at Ranieri Sculpture Casting of Long Island City made a rubber mold, destroying the foam-plaster creature in the process; then they used the mold to make a hollow and reproducible wax model ready for final casting.  The wax was covered with an “investment” mold, a cement mix that can take the heat of molten metal.  With the wax burnt out of that second mold, the metal was poured in and became our Iconic Dan.  Bronzed Dan was ready for the final touches: a
coat of patina and wax.

If the sons of Eli beats Harvard this year, panting Yale fans will be belting out “Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow” and scratching Handsome
Dan’s bronze ears for luck.

Mark Simon, FAIA, is a founding partner of Centerbrook Architects. A version of this post originally appeared on thefirm’s blog, “TheMillrace,”

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