In celebration of its 75th anniversary, Gould Colman ’51, former Cornell University archivist, spoke about Willard Straight Hall’s early history at a fireside chat in the Straight Art Gallery yesterday.
“[Willard Straight Hall] arrived on this site around the same time that I arrived in this world, so we’ve come forth together,” Colman said. His discussion addressed the stories of both Willard Straight, class of 1901, the man, and Willard Straight Hall, the student union building.
“Who was Willard Straight?” Colman asked. “There, in fact, lies a fascinating story.”
Straight, an architecture student, “was concerned about bringing people together,” Colman said. His desire for cohesiveness and pride among architecture students led to the creation of Dragon Day, when the students showcased their talents for the rest of the University.
“He had a great capacity for friendship,” Colman noted. “He was one who questioned authority even though he became one of the authorities himself.”
After graduation, Straight moved to China and eventually married Dorothy Whitney. Together, they helped found the journals The New Republic, Asia Magazine as well as The New School for Social Research.
Straight died during the influenza epidemic at the end of World War I. In his will, he instructed his wife to “do such thing or things for Cornell that she thinks fit to make it a more humane place,” according to Colman.
Whitney Straight decided that she would build a union in memory of her late husband. “[Willard Straight Hall] is unique in that its purpose, shape and location was selected by one person,” Colman said.
“What’s a union?” Colman asked. “The idea for the building was that it be a common ground, not just for students, but for anyone associated with the University.”
When the Straight opened in 1925, “the fraternity was the key to a social existence at the University,” Colman noted. “When the building was created, it was a place for independent students.” Students attended dances, lectures and fireside concerts there.
“You may say, ‘what kind of common ground is it if there was a separate women’s entrance?'” Colman suggested, in reference to the smaller women’s entrance on the left side of the building.
In its early days, the Straight was segregated on the inside as well. Only men were allowed in the billiard room and barber shop, while only women were allowed in the tea room.
Compared to other unions, however, Willard Straight provided women with space and opportunity. “The women here were being relatively welcomed in comparison to the other universities,” Colman said.
Colman stressed further that Willard Straight Hall differs from other unions in that students partake in governing it. Belonging to a Straight committee “was a big deal,” Colman said. “[Women] really blossomed in these committees.”
Cornell students, faculty, staff and alumni joined Colman to learn about and share stories from Cornell’s past.
[My friend Kira and I] both share an interest in Cornell trivia,” Kate Beukenkamp ’03 said. Beukenkamp said that as a woman at Cornell, it is especially important for her to know how women were treated here in the past.
“I feel like so many interesting stories come from the past that students don’t know about. [These stories] tell us a lot about the present,” Kira Moriah ’03 said. “They’re fun to hear and they teach us a lot about how things are now.”
The Willard Straight Hall Program Board and Dean of Students sponsored Colman’s chat.
Other events this week to celebrate the Straight’s 75th anniversary include a Coffeehouse with JOMO, a performer who plays jug band songs from the 1920s, today from 8 to 10 p.m. and a birthday party on Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Archived article by Stephanie Hankin