Architecture at Cornell

During my time at Cornell, I've amassed quite a collection of knowledge about the history and architecture of the Ithaca campus. These facts, stories, and bits of trivia came from various sources (campus tours, Wikipedia, and the archives of Ithacating in Cornell Heights), but the end result is that I can give a fairly comprehensive tour of the buildings of Cornell. I created this webpage to write down in a more permanent fashion the information and commentary I might give on such a tour, so that it won't disappear when I graduate (or when my sources vanish from the Internet).

Of course, if you'd like a tour in person, feel free to ask me. I've led campus tours for PhD Visit Day on multiple occasions, as well as for Grad School Orientation.

The Arts Quad

I'll begin with the oldest part of Cornell's campus, what is now known as the Arts Quad. This is where the college began in the 1860s, when the first three buildings were constructed: Morrill, McGraw, and White (in order, left to right, as you face them from the quad).

These buildings, now known as the Old Stone Row, were the entirety of Cornell's campus until 1870. They are all built in the architectural style called “Second Empire,” so named because it was popular during the Second French Empire. It is characterized by semicircular arches capping the windows, limestone trim on the arches and the corners of the building, and Mansard roofs creating an extra story with dormer windows. Second Empire buildings often had horizontal stripes of color in their shingles, and used square or round towers with peaked roofs to create focal points in the facade, both of which can be seen in McGraw Hall. Interestingly enough, the gray stone used in their facades is very local, quarried from the same hill they are built on top of.

You might notice that the tower of McGraw Hall is at the “back” of the building, opposite the quad; in fact, the front facade of all three buildings faces the slope rather than the quad. The founders of Cornell, Ezra Cornell and Andrew White, originally envisoned the campus as a “grand terrace” overlooking Ithaca and Cayuga Lake, so they oriented the buildings to face this scenic view. This plan was discarded when the second row of buildings was built behind the first, enclosing a quad, but it was somewhat revived in 2008 when the new West Campus dorms were built specifically to reveal the scenic view instead of creating courtyards (thus creating a second “terrace”).

At the time they were built, many critics considered these buildings “ugly” and “utilitarian,” due to their boxy design and relatively plain gray facades. Ezra Cornell, however, liked them that way because he disapproved of excessive ornamentation and wanted a practical and utilitarian university. He even disapproved of A.D. White's choice of a neoclassical style for Goldwin Smith Hall. Ironically, the Old Stone Row now looks charming and ornamental compared to some of the modern buildings recently added to Cornell's campus (such as Physical Sciences, an unadorned glass box).

Uris Library, perched next to Morrill Hall on the crest of the slope, is Cornell's main library. Although the founders of Cornell planned for a university library as early as 1867, the building itself was not built until 1888-91, partly as a result of the long dispute over Jennie McGraw's will (known as the Great Will Case). McGraw was the only child of a wealthy lumber merchant, and left a large share of her vast fortune to Cornell for the purpose of building a library. However, just before her death in 1881, she married Daniel Willard Fiske, Cornell's first librarian. Fiske then had a falling-out with Cornell's trustees and sued to invalidate the will on the basis of a state law forbidding a married woman from leaving more than half of her money to charity. After a long legal fight the Supreme Court ruled in Fiske's favor, and trustee Henry Sage ended up using his own money to build the library. The library became Cornell's most iconic building, and the prominent clock tower a recognizable symbol of Cornell. The clock tower contains the Cornell Chimes, 21 bells that are used to play musical concerts as well as ringing out the hour. Originally there were 9 bells, donated by Jennie McGraw in 1868, and they were hung in the small tower on McGraw Hall while waiting for the library to be constructed.

Uris was designed by William Henry Miller, Cornell's first architecture student, and uses the Romanesque Revival style of architecture. Its windows are framed by classical Ionic columns, and the main entrance is emphasized with a massive semicircular arch. In an interesting contrast with the nearby Second Empire buildings, Romanesque Revival facades tend to be distinctly asymmetrical, and as a result the entrance is not in the center of the building. The library was originally cross-shaped, but an expansion in 1936 squared off the space between the south and west wings, using closely-matching sandstone. It was expanded again in 1982 by adding rooms underground on the slope-facing side; the exposed glassed-in staircase connects to them.

On the other side of the Old Stone Row is Olive Tjaden Hall, which was originally named Franklin Hall when it was constructed in 1883. It was built for the Department of Electrical Engineering, and besides the profile of Benjamin Franklin over its entrance, it is adorned with the names and images of many other scientists and engineers. Its style is rather transitional between Second Empire and the newer Victorian Gothic that emerged in the 1870s: while it uses many of the basic design features of Second Empire (arched window caps, light-colored trim accenting the corners, Mansard roof), its color scheme is very similar to Victorian Gothic buildings such as Sage Hall.

Ironically, given its original name, the building was struck by lightning in the 1950s, causing a fire that burned the roof off the tower. The tower was given a “temporary” flat roof until 1998, when Olive Tjaden '25 donated enough money to restore the building and replace the roof. The building had at that point already been renamed in her honor (she was a prominent architect, and the Architecture Department renamed it in 1981 when it moved into the building).

Sibley Hall has a bit of an unusual history, as it was built in three distinct phases over a period of 32 years. The first building consisted only of the section to the left of the dome, and would have looked like a near replica of White Hall when it was built in 1870. This structure was positioned in the center of the north end of the Arts Quad, which explains why the current building is not centered on the quad and the dome doesn't particularly align with anything. Then, in 1894, another building of the same size and shape was constructed at the northeast corner of the quad, leaving a gap between it and the original Sibley. In 1902 the domed center building was built in the gap, joining the two existing buildings to create the modern Sibley Hall. These buildings were originally used for the Sibley School of Mechanical Engineering, but are now the home of the College of Art, Architecture, and Planning.

By the time the second and third components of Sibley were built, the Second Empire style used for the original building had gone out of fashion. The rear facades of the buildings (which originally faced various laboratory outbuildings) show the transition to newer materials and styles, but the front facades were intentionally chosen to match the original section's design. The only exception is the dome on the central building, which comes from the neoclassical style popular in 1902 and has been derisively called “the breast of campus” by alumni responding to a survey.

The Johnson Museum sits just outside the Arts Quad on the edge of the slope. In the 19th century there was a different building on this site: Morse Hall, a Romanesque Revival building constructed in 1889 to house the Department of Chemistry. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens with chemistry departments, it caught fire in 1916 and was almost completely destroyed. The remains of the first floor were covered with a temporary roof and used as an art gallery until 1954, when they were torn down. In the 1970s Cornell decided to build a new art museum on the same site, and brought in famous architect I. M. Pei to design it; the result was the current Johnson Museum, which was finished in 1973.

This building is something of a cautionary tale of the effects of Starchitecture (valuing the name of a famous architect above the quality of the work he or she produces). Its odd shape and windowless raw concrete exterior look completely out of place next to the traditional stone buildings of the Arts Quad, and its position and massing no longer align with Tjaden and Sibley (the way Morse once did), making it stick out like a sore thumb from the otherwise orderly design of the quad. Worse, huge swaths of exposed structural concrete tend to deteriorate rapidly when exposed to precipitation and a freeze/thaw cycle, making this building “age” quickly in Ithaca's climate. However, Cornell ignored all the potential downsides and approved this design, presumably due to Pei's star power and name recognition.

Rand Hall is next to Sibley, just outside the Arts Quad to the east. It was built in 1911 in the style of a “daylight factory,” a design that took advantage of (then-new) steel-frame construction to create light-filled industrial work spaces. The interior is one large open room, divided only by support beams, and the non-load-bearing walls have long banks of windows to admit as much natural light as possible. Similar designs were used for many of Henry Ford's buildings in Detroit. The facade is a brick version of neo-classical, arranging the windows into stacked orders separated by pilasters with distinct capitals, and framing the third-story windows with arches. Until recently, Rand was the home of the Architecture Department's work studios, but these were moved to Milstein upon its completion, and the building is now mostly unused. Cornell plans to eventually turn it into a Fine Arts Library, after making extensive renovations that would include capping the roof with a glass box.

Milstein Hall is the steel-and-glass rectangle that appears to float in the space between Sibley and Rand. It was built in 2011 as the new headquarters and centerpiece of the Architecture Department, after a lengthy and heavily-debated design process. The artistically embellished postmodern design is indicative of the type of building most Architecture students want to build, so it is in a sense an appropriate building for this department. On the other hand, the glowing white spheres embedded in concrete and lack of a visible ground-level entrance are baffling to most passersby. Although A.D. White's will contains a provision requiring all buildings on the Arts Quad to have stone facades, Milstein falls just outside this rule's effect because the end of Sibley Hall defines the northeast corner of the quad.

Opposite White Hall is Lincoln Hall , which is currently the home of the Music Department. Built in 1881, it has a fairly simple Romanesque style that is made much more interesting by the use of striking red stone (the same variety used for Tjaden Hall). Like Uris Library, the quad's other Romanesque building, it avoids a single central entrance in favor of two off-center entrances framed by Roman arches. The rear facade of the building used red brick to save money (the red stone was quite expensive), and an addition built in 1998 also used brick, although in a style sympathetic to the original. Lincoln Hall is named for President Abraham Lincoln, not because he donated any money to Cornell, but because he signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which established funding for state land-grant universities.

Goldwin Smith Hall is the home of several humanities departments at Cornell, and was designed in the neoclassical style preferred by Andrew White, whose statue sits in front of it. The northern wing was originally a standalone building that housed the Dairy Science program; when the rest of Goldwin Smith was built in 1902, the design incorporated the Dairy Building and matched it with a parallel wing on the south side. The front of the building is centered on the gap between Morrill and McGraw where the statue of Ezra Cornell stands, so the statues of Cornell and White face each other. Since Ezra Cornell was well-known for disapproving of both the study of the humanities and the excess decoration of neoclassical architecture, it appears that A.D. White's statue is protecting “his” building from Ezra, while Ezra's statue is guarding “his” side of the quad.

Olin Library encloses the south end of the Arts Quad, next to Uris Library. This oversized concrete-and-glass box was built in 1959 to satisfy Cornell's urgent need for much more library space. To circumvent the provision in A.D. White's will that all buildings on the Arts Quad must have stone facades, the university used stone on the support columns separating the ground-floor windows, and argued that the concrete panels on the main facade “counted” as stone.

However, this ugly building was not always the anchor of the otherwise-picturesque Arts Quad. In the original design of the quad, Olin's place was occupied by Boardman Hall, home of the law school and the lavishly ornate Law Library. This building was named for the first dean of the law school, Judge Douglas Boardman, and designed by William Henry Miller to match Uris Library. It was also Romanesque Revival, composed of sandstone, and had a similar size and shape to the east-west axis of Uris. The interior had high vaulted ceilings, carved wood paneling, and several large fireplaces that were (ironically) forbidden from use due to the fire hazard. Unfortunately, as Cornell's library collection expanded in the 1950s and Uris became overcrowded, the university decided to destroy Boardman Hall to build a new library rather than build the new building on unused land. By that time, the law school no longer needed the building (the Law Quad having recently been completed), and apparently no one in the administration had any respect for the memory of Judge Boardman or William Henry Miller.

Finally, Stimson Hall flanks Olin Library on the opposite side of Uris. Originally, Uris Library, Boardman Hall, and Stimson Hall formed the “president's row,” three stately buildings designed by William Henry Miller that led up to the University President's house on the hill across East Avenue. This was the last one to be completed, in 1903. It uses the same sandstone materials as Uris and Boardman, but the style is a transitional mixture of periods. The rusticated (i.e. made of rough stone blocks) base emulates the Second Empire buildings of the Old Stone Row, while the entrance is emphasized with a heavy Romanesque arch, and the upper floors have smooth colonnades more similar to a Beaux-Arts building. The well-defined horizontal boundary between the base and the second floor was designed to be at the same height as the eaves of Boardman Hall, providing visual continuity as the buildings “stepped up” the slope.

Stimson's footprint is U-shaped rather than rectangular, and a second building was planned for the space behind it (roughly where Day Hall is now), with a corresponding U-shaped footprint that would complete a small courtyard between the two buildings. Unfortunately, the second building was never built, and the courtyard space is now a parking lot.

Ho Plaza

The area of Cornell's campus just south of the Arts Quad is mostly defined by Ho Plaza, though not all the buildings face it. The pedestrian walkway was in fact a road until the 1990s, as evidenced by the fact that it lines up so perfectly with the terminus of College Avenue. This road, Central Avenue, cut through the center of campus and skirted around Uris Library to meet the road in front of the Old Stone Row, which is now a dead-end parking lot. It was closed to traffic and converted into Ho Plaza in the 1980s as part of the university's efforts to make central campus more pedestrian-friendly.

Olin Hall was built in 1941 to house the Department of Chemical Engineering, and ended up being the first phase of the Engineering School's move out of Sibley and into the new Engineering Quad. It was funded by the same Olin family that later funded the construction of Olin Library and Olin Laboratory, hence the confusing redundancy in names. Its style is essentially a late 30s Art Deco, but executed almost entirely in brick instead of the usual white tile or stone. The carved ornamental symbols above each entrance, a distinctive Art Deco feature, led some alumni to comment that the building would be “better suited to a Department of Alchemy” when they saw the finished product. The wing extending along Campus Road was added later; although the facade generally matches the rest of the buildings, the more modern windows give it away.

Sage Chapel was one of the first buildings outside the Arts Quad. Since Cornell was the first American private college with no official religious affiliation and no mandatory church attendance for students, critics in the 1870s called Cornell students “the heathens on the hill.“ Henry Sage, one of Cornell's first trustees, eventually tired of his school's reputation as a godless den of sin and funded the construction of a campus chapel in 1875. This building was designed by Charles Babcock, Cornell's first professor of architecture, in his favorite Victorian Gothic style. It was expanded three times, in 1884, 1903, and 1939, and the first two expansions were also designed by Babcock. The stained-glass windows, rather than honoring saints or depicting Biblical stories, instead represent famous scientists, philosophers, and other scholars. Many of Cornell's original trustees, including Henry Sage and Ezra Cornell himself, are buried beneath the floor of the chapel.

Barnes Hall, built in 1888, was another William Henry Miller creation. Miller actually created two different designs for this building; the other was a Victorian Gothic design that would have matched neighboring Sage Chapel, but the trustees preferred this Romanesque Revival design (possibly because it matches Uris Library so well). The building was originally intended to provide space for a Christian student organization, as part of the trustees' campaign to contradict the rumor that Cornell was a “heathen school,” and later became a general-purpose student union. After Willard Straight was built it was converted to administrative offices, and it currently houses Career Services, but the piano recital hall is still used for music performances in the Cornell Concert Series.

Willard Straight Hall is Cornell's undergraduate student center and houses many facilities and services for students, including a full-size movie theater (Cornell Cinema). It was built in the 1920s, with a pleasant combination of Collegiate Gothic style and modern steel-frame construction that allows it to extend a fair distance down the Slope and still support a vaulted “great hall” with two-story windows. The walls are local Ithaca llenroc with cream-colored limestone trim. An addition in 1954 filled in a square corner between the south and west wings (this is now the Okenshields dining hall), but the builders carefully matched the new facade to the style of the existing building. Note that the front (east) facade actually has two entrances; the smaller door on the left was originally the women's entrance.

The building is named for Willard Straight, class of 1901, but he did not directly fund its construction. He died in 1918, and left a provision in his will that some of his fortune be used to make Cornell “a more human place.” Nothing was done with the money until 1920, when a student named Leonard Elmhirst came to New York City to solicit donations from wealthy alumni to fund his club. Elmhirst was the president of the Cosmopolitan Club, one of the few non-fraternity social clubs at Cornell, and it had gotten deeply in debt. He met Willard Straight's widow, Dorothy, and told her a heartwrenching story about how hard life was for non-frat-associated students at Cornell, and how clubs like his were the only social activity such students had available. Apparently he was so convincing that, not only did Dorothy agree to pay off the club's debts, she funded the construction of a new building for the purpose of undergraduate social activities — and married him shortly afterward.

East Avenue

A series of buildings along East Avenue are not part of any named quad or region of campus. They were built in different periods of time at the edges of other parts of campus, and generally faced the road for convenient access.

Starting at the northern end of East Avenue, Baker Labs is perched at the top of a slope overlooking Lincoln Hall. It was designed around 1910, but it took so long to find funding for the new building that it was not constructed until 1918-21, becoming one of Cornell's first postwar buildings. The long-sought-for donor was George Baker, who chose to remain anonymous during construction of the building and only revealed his identity at the building's dedication in 1921. Baker Labs uses a neoclassical style, though slightly more modernized than Goldwin Smith, and uses vertically aligned sets of rectangular windows to suggest a continuing colonnade on either side of the entrance. It was originally a fairly shallow building, but was expanded in 1967 with two parallel wings extending to the rear; like the midcentury addition to Willard Straight, the new wings' facades were carefully designed to continue the existing building's style. Unfortunately, Baker Labs did not work very effectively as a laboratory when it was first opened. The building was plagued by inadequate ventilation, low ceilings, and a basement that regularly flooded. Alumni responding to a survey in Cornell Alumni News described Baker as “a US Post Office conferred by a Republican administration.”

The Physical Sciences building fills in the space between Baker, Rockefeller, and Clark Hall. Originally there was a courtyard between the buildings, and Physical Sciences simply enclosed it with a glass box, constructed in 2010. The original facade of Baker Labs' south side was left visible, and the entrance to Baker Labs from Physical Sciences is actually its original (outdoor) entrance from the courtyard. Physical Sciences is such a bland building that it doesn't even have a proper name (the university is still waiting for a large enough donation to name it), and its only notable feature is the fact that it blocks the view of Clark Hall's ugly cement tower.

Rockefeller Hall is named for John D. Rockefeller, who donated a large sum of money towards its construction. It was designed by the same architecture firm that designed Goldwin Smith, and built at around the same time, in 1903. Its size and shape were designed to match Goldwin Smith, with its forward-extending north and south wings aligned with Goldwin Smith's rear-extending wings, in a mirror image “reflected” over the dividing line of East Avenue. This symmetry has now been obfuscated by Klarman Hall filling in the space between Goldwin Smith's wings, but it's still somewhat visible from the air. Unlike Goldwin Smith, however, Rockefeller was designed in a Colonial Revival style, with a red-brick facade, light stone highlights, and a hipped shingle roof. Its interior continues the style with carved-wood staircases and trim. Unfortunately, upon seeing the finished building John D. Rockefeller thought it was so ugly he declared he would never donate any more money to Cornell. (The Alumni News survey somewhat agrees, since the respondents named it “public grammar school No. 16”). If Rockefeller thought this building was unacceptably ugly, one wonders what he would have thought of Olin, Clark, or Physical Sciences.

The A.D. White House, on the corner of East Ave and Tower Road, was built for A.D. White in 1874, so that he could live near Cornell's campus while serving as its first president. It is an impressive mansion in High Victorian Gothic style, designed by William Henry Miller and Charles Babcock. After A.D. White retired he turned the house over to the next university president, and it became the president's official residence until the 1950s. In that decade, increasing student agitation and protests on campus led then-President Malott to move his residence somewhere further away and less easily found by protesters. The house was converted to a University Art Museum, and its carriage house (garage) was converted into the Big Red Barn, an activities center for graduate students. In 1973 it was again repurposed as the offices and teaching space of the Society for the Humanities at Cornell.

On the opposite corner is Uris Hall, which was built in 1972 using a gift from the Uris family, whose donation also named Uris Library. The design of the building was specified by the Urises; they had recently visited Pittsburgh and were impressed with the look of the US Steel Tower, and asked for their new building to be built in a similar style. The US Steel Tower had a facade of Cor-Ten steel, which develops a warm gold patina when it reacts with common air pollutants (such as those found in Pittsburgh). However, there are no air pollutants in Ithaca, so the Cor-Ten steel framing used for Uris's facade did not oxidize as planned. Instead, it has been slowly rusting away for the past 40 years. The rust creates a caustic runoff that gets desposited onto the windows when it rains, which must be quickly removed before it destroys the glass. In addition, the large single-pane windows are poor insulators during the winter, which drives up heating costs. The combination of window-cleaning and heating costs makes Uris Cornell's most expensive building to maintain. It's also one of Cornell's ugliest.

[This page is a work in progress; more content will be added as I have time]