February 21, 2006

WSH Dark Room Eyes Reincarnation

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The Willard Straight Hall darkroom closed its doors quietly at the end of last semester, but it still sits empty more than two months after the last photographs were developed there. And according to Kent Hubbell ’67, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, the space will remain dark for months to come.

“The goal is to try to get a new media center up and running by the beginning of next school year,” Hubbell said.

But he added that the entire plan is “still contingent on funding” for massive renovations.

In a partnership between Cornell Information Technology (CIT) and the Office of the Dean of Students, the old darkroom space will become a digital media lab with Macintosh and P.C. computers, according to Patrick Washburn, public computing manager at CIT.

Hubbell said the new media center will be “capable of running various sorts of software for the applied, performing and fine arts.”

For example, the lab will allow students to use animation and music composing software.

Although plans for the new media center are well underway with the expectation that funding will come through, the room is still full of equipment from its prior incarnation as a working darkroom.

Andy Palmer, program coordinator of the ceramics studio and darkroom, said he was “told to try to sell the equipment off.” He sent an e-mail to ceramics studio and darkroom users stating that he had “been given the task of liquidating all of the darkroom supplies and equipment.”

About two-thirds of the equipment remains unsold, according to Palmer.

Palmer stated that the equipment, which includes drying boxes and racks, a chemical developing sink, chemicals and a G4 Macintosh computer, printer and scanner, “is in good shape and was well-maintained.” He added that “the prices are less than half of what it cost us to get it [all].”

But Hubbell claimed that “our first priority” was “to find another department that can use [the equipment]” because it was bought with University funds.

Despite his insistence that the material would be given to other departments if at all possible, Hubbell said he did not know whether it was actually offered around before it was sold to students and other photographers. Other members of the Office of the Dean of Students were similarly unsure.

The only other place students can learn photography developing skills without trying to get into art department for-credit-only classes, which often fill up quickly or are restricted to students with experience, is in Risley Hall on North Campus.

Hubbell said the Willard Straight Hall darkroom closed for a few reasons, most importantly the fact that the financial burden of keeping it running was no longer worthwhile. “It was showing a loss,” Hubbell said, noting that the return had been “up and down for some time.”

The former darkroom manager moved to New York City recently, and Hubbell said the Office of the Dean of Students had to decide whether to refill the position. They decided not to and instead offered the space to CIT, which had been looking for a new location for years.

Washburn explained that a component of the CIT staff base had been pushed out of the North wing of Martha Van Rensselaer during that building’s renovation. They were relocated to Mann Library and then had to move once again when the library began its renovation. Washburn said a few years ago “we were throwing out general requests for space,” and now the Willard Straight Hall managers “remembered we had been looking.”

The media center in the former darkroom space is just one part of a larger project bringing the Straight’s technology further into the 21st century. Hubbell explained that the building will be “entirely rewired” to Category Six, meaning it will be “ubiquitously wireless,” by August.

Other components of the Straight makeover, Hubbell said, include the renovation of the first-floor ceramics studio, the creation of a “baby memorial room” on the fifth floor and the reorganization of the browsing library on the fourth floor.

While Washburn understands that the old darkroom space is expected to be a digital media lab, he admitted, “I haven’t heard that it’s a done deal.”

Washburn said, “a lot of reconstruction work has to happen before I can move in and do anything worthwhile.”

And with financing still not secured by the Dean of Students, that first step in the renovation of the darkroom space could remain far off.

Archived article by By Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor