November 20, 2000

Willard Straight Hall: Celebrating 75 Years

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Celebrating 75 years since it first opened its doors to Cornell’s students, Willard Straight Hall hosted a birthday party Friday in the Memorial Room.

The event, held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. featured refreshments, music and guest speakers and was hosted by the Willard Straight Program Board in conjunction with the Dean of Students office.

The birthday party was a mingling of the past with the present. Pictures adorned the walls of the Memorial Room showing the Straight’s anniversary celebrations from years past. A timeline of the Straight’s history described notable events that occurred in the building.

Speakers addressed the crowd, calling on the past and the glorious history of the building to lead the way so that the next 75 years are as good as the first.

The Straight has always been a student union. “The student union is the living room of the campus. It is a place where students can come to relax and kick off their shoes,” said Catherine Holmes M.S. ’85, of the planning committee for the birthday celebration. “Today the Straight serves the entire Cornell community. It is the space that students and faculty can come together outside the classroom,” Holmes said.

Echoing this statement, Susan H. Murphy ’73, Vice President of Student and Academic Services, one of the featured speakers at the celebration, said, “Willard Straight is the merging of the living and learning of the Campus.”

Murphy continued, talking about her personal feelings about the Straight, in particular the student takeover of the building in 1969 — an event that helped her to decide to attend Cornell as an undergraduate.

Now, the Straight features the coffeetime series, comedy nights, art galleries, music days and is home to Student Assembly meetings, a movie theater, and the office of the Dean of Students..

S.A. President Uzo Asonye ’02 declared that “the Straight is a safe haven that houses many memories. It is a place that helps students escape from their academic burdens.” Asonye mentioned in particular the weekly S.A. meetings that occur in the Memorial Room every week.

The party featured a cake in the shape of the Straight baked and designed by Patsy Stevens of Cornell Dining. Stevens worked from a small picture and produced a cake from it that took approximately eight and a half hours to bake and that served roughly 3,000 slices.

A Week of Celebrations

Sun Staff Reports

Other events that were held last week to commemorate the 75th birthday of the Straight were a fireside chat with Cornell University archivist, Gould Colman ’51 and a coffeehouse featuring music from the 1920s.

At the fireside chat last Wednesday, Colman spoke about Willard Straight Hall’s early history at a fireside chat in the Straight Art Gallery.

“[Willard Straight Hall] arrived on this site around the same time that I arrived in this world, so we’ve come forth together,” Colman had told The Sun. His discussion addressed the stories of both Willard Straight, class of 1901, the man, and Willard Straight Hall, the student union building.

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.

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.

In its early days, the Straight was segregated on the inside as well its separate and smaller women’s entrance facing Ho Plaza. Only men were allowed in the billiard room and barber shop, while only women were allowed in the tea room.

Compared to other unions of the time, however, Willard Straight provided women with exceptional space and opportunity. “The women here were being relatively welcomed in comparison to the other universities,” Colman said.

The Willard Straight Hall Program Board and Dean of Students sponsored Colman’s chat.

Other events last week to celebrate the Straight’s 75th anniversary included a Coffeehouse with JOMO, a performer who plays jug band songs from the 1920s, Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m. and a birthday party on Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Archived article by Ruthie Wahl