Last week, Cornell University unveiled its plans for Milstein Hall, the new building to be placed awkwardly behind Sibley Hall and adjacent to Rand Hall and the Foundry. The long-delayed project is scheduled to begin construction in early 2007, despite mixed reviews. The fact that architect Rem Koolhaas calls it a “miracle box” seems the most worrisome. Is a “miracle box” the most appropriate accompaniment to the grand columns of Goldwin Smith Hall or the picturesque McGraw Tower? Regardless, Cornell’s history abounds with similar stories of its buildings and architects.
Milstein Hall isn’t the first building to face criticism. Although it was originally slated to replace Rand Hall, it quickly became clear that Cornellians are not fond of demolishing their buildings. A parallel situation was faced by Olin Library, completed in 1961. The large blockish building stands on the former site of Boardman Hall. Named after the first dean of the College of Law, Boardman was constructed in the early 1890s to house the Law School and its library. The stately building was designed as a complement to Uris Library by the same architect, William Henry Miller. When Boardman was demolished in 1959 to make room for the utilitarian and boxy Olin Library, students and faculty called the structure a “horror,” “mistake,” and “IBM card,” believing Olin would permanently ruin the Arts Quad. The architects of Olin attempted to pacify objectors by leaving some of the disturbing stone heads that once adorned Boardman leering from the library’s north wall. Time has tempered the ill will toward Olin’s utilitarian compromise, but many of those who remember its predecessor would gladly return the Arts Quad to its early 1950s appearance.
Perhaps no building received as much hatred from one individual as Morse Hall did from President Andrew Dickson White. Morse Hall, built in the late 1880s on the site of the Johnson Art Museum, housed the Chemistry Department. Quickly erected by the Board of Trustees while White was in Europe, the red brick building was placed on the famed promontory where Ezra Cornell had first pointed out the place he would build his university, now the location of the Johnson Art Museum. White was passionate about keeping only gray stone buildings on the Arts Quad, instead of using the less expensive brick. He had vehemently opposed the use of red brick in Lincoln Hall, and nearly went ballistic when he returned from Europe to find his Arts Quad sullied by another brick building, this time on the famed overlook. Fortunately for him, the building was engulfed by an intense chemical fire in 1916, and one can imagine White grinning gleefully as chemical explosions rattled the building. Some faculty members were actually convinced that German saboteurs started the fire to destroy the work that the Chemistry Department was doing for national defense. To White’s disappointment, the formerly three-story building was roofed over after the fire as a one-story eyesore. It later burnt down a second time, was repaired, and finally removed in 1954. Its replacement was a parking lot, which probably would have angered White just as much as the building did.
Although architectural design was not an issue, the construction of Barnes Hall had a grim start. Currently home to an eclectic combination of offices including Career Services, the Public Service Center and Minority Educational Affairs, Barnes Hall was originally built to house the Cornell University Christian Association. The money for the building was donated by Alfred S. Barnes, a publisher and trustee (no relation to Barnes & Noble). Plans were approved in fall 1887 and the building was dedicated at Commencement in 1889. However, the path to completion was a rough one, as Barnes Hall’s construction was plagued by death. Alfred Barnes, the donor, died only months after plans were approved. With construction underway, the superintending architect passed away next, followed by the senior contractor and the stone carver, leaving the building’s stone columns unfinished still today. Finally, death claimed its fifth victim, the contractor for the gas fixtures. Purported to be the work of dark forces conspiring against the religious nature of the original building, the Curse of Barnes Hall is nearly forgotten today.
The unveiling of Milstein Hall brings to mind an especially entertaining parody article from an April 1978 issue of The Cornell Daily Sun. The front page of The Sun proclaimed, “J. S. BLEEK, ALUMNUS, GIVES $13,000,000 FOR SKYSCRAPER TO HOUSE ARTS SCHOOL.” Accompanied by an artist’s rendition of the building, the article details the hulking new edifice that would be replacing Morrill, McGraw and White Halls along with much of the Arts Quad. The 35-story skyscraper was intended for use by the College of Arts & Sciences, blocking all light to Sibley. The building’s fictional donor, Jasper S. Bleek 1909, reputedly made his millions as a beer baron (perhaps a reference to the Coors family’s connections to Cornell). The article lists him as being a proud member of Quill and Dagger, Pomegranate and Candle, Trident and Spade, and the decorations committee for the 23-Skiddoo Hop. One can only be glad that the Milstein family didn’t specify that their gift go toward the erection of a skyscraper or other such architectural monstrosity on campus. We’ll have to wait and see how the “miracle box” turns out.
Corey Earle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Walking Backwards appears alternate Wednesdays.