May 1, 2007

Monuments Reflect Times Past at C.U.

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As Cornell students stroll, saunter and sprint to class each day, preoccupied with their last prelim or concerned about their next assignment, they rarely have the opportunity to appreciate the Cornell campus, the beauty and decades of dusty history it has to offer. But as springtime rolls around, now is as good a time as any to take a fresh look at some of the seemingly mundane monuments and memorials around campus.
Ostrander Elms
On the row of dirt and grass outside Stimson Hall, along the sidewalk next to East Avenue, an ominous slab of red-brown rock sits, inscribed with “Ostrander Elms 1880.” But who is this Ostrander Elms and why is he buried on a sidewalk?
“It’s not a person — it’s trees! There was a beautiful line on both sides of the road of elm trees, but they all died,” said Elaine Engst, University archivist.
The elms found their place at Cornell when Andrew Dickson White, co-founder and president of the University, and Henry W. Sage, an early benefactor and trustee of Cornell, were standing outside one day, and a “plain farmer came along in his lumber wagon,” White recounts in the February 8, 1905 issue of the Cornell Alumni News. According to White, the farmer “stopped and said, ‘I wish I could do something for the University. I cannot give you money, but I have on my farm a lot of thrifty young elm trees … I will most gladly take them up carefully and bring them to you.’” White “heartily accepted his offer” and the elms’ “beautiful shade along one of the most beautiful avenues” graced Cornell until the Dutch Elm disease swept through New York State.
“Elm trees are a real tragedy in New York State,” said Engst.
The trees were originally planted in 1877, according to the Cornell website, but all that remains is the red-brown rock outside Stimson — not a tombstone, but a marker in memory of the East Avenue elm trees.
The Sheldon Memorial
Across from the south entrance of Goldwin Smith Hall is Sheldon Memorial, a monument older than even those of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White in the Arts Quadrangle. It is also one of those monuments around campus people see every day but rarely consciously recognize.
“I doubt many students really think much of it — I’ve seen soda cans and food wrappers and cigarettes left all around it — I think most people just think it’s a nice convenient place to eat or smoke and don’t realize why it is even there,” said Julianne Porter ’06.
In her paper, The Sheldon Memorial: An Integration of Ancient Pompeii into an American University, Porter delves into the history and architecture of the memorial, which was commissioned by Charles Lacy Sheldon for his two sons, Franklin Lacy Sheldon and Charles Lacy Sheldon, Jr. Both sons graduated from Cornell with their masters degrees and died while still young men.
The memorial is modeled after a schola, an ancient Roman memorial bench used in Pompeii. The table portion of the monument “allude[s] to the commemorative feasts, whether Roman or Christian” and supports the sun dial, which represents “the shortness of time and the fragility of life,” according to Porter’s paper. In addition, the monument was “a collaboration of Charles Lacy Sheldon, President Schurman, A.D. White and architects Carrere and Hastings” who designed Goldwin Smith, and was built as an addition to the campus atmosphere.
While the memorial is inscribed with both sons’ names, the memorial was not erected until two years after Charles, Jr. died, 15 years after Franklin had died. No one currently knows the reason why it took so long after his first son died for Charles to commission the monument.
Baldwin Memorial Stairway
The Baldwin Memorial Stairway was originally dedicated on November 11, 1925, a gift from Arthur J. Baldwin, Class of 1892, to his fraternity Delta Phi, Cornell University and the Ithaca community in memory of his son Morgan Smiley Baldwin ’15, according to the Cornell Library website. Morgan Baldwin died on October 9, 1918 while fighting in World War I.
“[The memorial] runs from University Avenue to Llenroc where Dela Phi is,” Engst said.
Last fall, interest in the stairway was renewed when a few workmen found a time capsule within the stairway while repairing some of its stones, according to Engst. The time capsule contained many papers and memorabilia, including copies of The Cornell Daily Sun and The Ithaca Daily Journal articles on the stairway, a Delta Phi pin marked “Morgan Smiley Baldwin,” the architect’s drawings of the stairway, and several other pamphlets and items relating to the dedication of the Baldwin Memorial Stairway. From these memorabilia it is clear that while the stairs may seem like just another hurdle up The Hill, they were once a source of great comfort and strength for the grieving Arthur Baldwin.