January 29, 2009

Cornell Architecture Myths: Busted

Print More

Where can you find the tomb of a secret society built into the side of a cliff, a building with no doors or windows and a secret research laboratory beneath a waterfall? No, it isn’t Hogwarts, it’s here in Ithaca on your way to class, by the road on your way home. Cornell’s campus has more secrets than a Dan Brown book: a closer look at some of the mysterious architecture around Ithaca reveals that the glossy brochure pictures of the Arts Quad are just the tip of a strange, strange iceberg. Some legends remain mysteries (catacombs beneath Sage Chapel, a secret exit from Uris) while others have been confirmed — you can walk through a tunnel between Olin and Uris on Slope Day, and the Cornell Synchotron accelerates particles under your feet while you run at Barton Hall. Others are revealed today: The Cornell Daily Sun, Mythbusters-style, explores the architectural archives on buildings kept under lock and key.

900 Stewart Ave.
Just past the Stewart Avenue bridge, at Fall Creek Road, there is a mysterious structure on the edge of the gorge. It looks like a bunker: a plain white wall with only the number 900 on it. It was, as many know, the home of Cornell’s late great Carl Sagan — an astronomer, popular writer and C.U. professor. Less known, however, is the fact that Sagan’s house has a history as dark and strange as the scientific mysteries that he popularized. Seen on YouTube from the roof of a building across the gorge, the building appears to not be a house at all, but an Egyptian shrine. Let’s take it back in time:
It’s 1954. You’re an Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brother, out with your buddies, drinking lemonade and having a good time. You’re headed for some good natured fun: you’re planning to prank one of the campus secret societies, Sphinx Head. You arrive at Stewart Avenue bridge, and suddenly you’re there: you stand on the edge of a cliff, facing what looks like an ancient Egyptian gateway. You take out the big padlock that you’ve brought with you, and laughing and scared, you lock the door shut from the outside, to the ignorance of the initiates within.
The next day, The Cornell Daily Sun prints a note on how “Members of the Sphinx Head, senior men’s honorary, found themselves for a moment inescapably entombed when an outsider placed a padlock on the outside of their ‘tomb.’” Ron Demer ’59, the SAE brother who claims credit, puts the clipping in the archives for future generations (discovered by Cornell history buff Corey Earle ’07). Fifty years later, 900 Stewart Ave. is rarely noticed.
Carl Sagan’s house was built as a tomb-cum-secret meeting place for Sphinx Head in 1925. The Architectural Digest ran a story in ’94 detailing the origins of Sagan’s house after it was renovated by the architectural firm Jullian and Pendleton. Sphinx Head, while they owned the building, conducted “initiation rites inside the tomb, in a large room where flickering six-foot candelabras cast shadows on unadorned walls before a ceremonial alter,” The Sun reported in 1979. The Sphinx Head eventually lost ownership of the building during a period of financial difficulty (including a tussle with competing senior honor society Quill and Dagger for ownership rights — “A bit of friendly rivalry,” said Earle ’07, former president of Q&D). It was converted into a home by Steven Mensch ’65 in the early ’80s and is now rumored to have been put up for sale again by Sagan’s wife. Inquire at your own risk.

Alpha Delta Phi’s “The G”
For a building with no doors or windows, Alpha Delta Phi’s Goat House — lovingly nicknamed “The G” by the brothers — has garnered intense amounts of speculation. Perhaps it is the way in which the building and its contents are kept in such in extreme secrecy that provokes the rumor mill. Everything that ever happened in Animal House, and so much more, has been rumored to take place within this conical-roofed, star shaped building. For all of the individuals who claim that they are sure they know all about it (“No, I am telling you, girls have sex in there a lot,” said an anonymous student), the brothers maintain to this day that only those initiated into the fraternity have ever been allowed in. “Someone tried to get in over winter break,” Jerome Soustra ’10, Alpha Delt brother shares, “we found crow bar marks.”
Nonetheless, this strange building has an architectural history that may rival tales of farm animals, an S&M dungeon and a torture chamber for pledges. The original Alpha Delta Phi mansion and the current Goat House building were built in the spring of 1900; the main house was destroyed in a fire in 1929, though the Goat House survived (no doubt because of walls thick enough to stop a missile). The architect of the building was George R. Dean, who built the original building in the “prairie style” distinctive of iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright (“Falling Water”). Further research finds that Dean, beyond simply being influenced by Wright, was his colleague and peer. The Goat House is ultimately Cornell’s last remnant of an architect who collaborated with America’s early architectural pioneers.
The Goat House also stands as a rival to the Nott Memorial at Union College whose students claim that it is the only 16-sided building in the northern hemisphere. Though the brothers of Alpha Delt will famously tell you nothing about the inside of the building, Soustra shared a strange story about the place. “Recently a brother ordered a pizza to the house. When the delivery guy called, he came up from a manhole in the hill [leading to the Goat House] while it was dark out, took the pizza, and went back in. The pizza dude was freaking out!” Soustra recalls. No doubt. The existence of manholes around the Goat House remains to be confirmed until after the snow melts.

Beebe Lake Ruin
Many freshmen have the experience of looking off of Thurston Bridge and seeing a strange ruin built into the base of Beebe Lake. On the way back, now intoxicated from their forays in Collegetown and West Campus, freshmen wonder among themselves, what could it be? A prison? A factory? An abandoned UFO? Reform school for too rowdy Chem-Es? The seemingly fictional Milstein Hall? This building has stymied generations of would-be adventurers and explorers. Risley inhabitants climb down the other side of the gorge and try to access the building from the bottom levels. A current anonymous architecture professor who attended Cornell in the ’70s recalls attempts to climb down from the now gated structure above the dam.
The ruin, ultimately, is not a prison or any other facility of dubious origin. Leo Hovi, now 77 years old, worked as an engineer for American Electrical Power in 1955, when the company used the facility for researchwith permission from the University.
“AEP had a huge problem at one of their plants,” said Hovi, “In the spring, a large number of leaves coming down the river would cause the plant to shut down, since the plant used river water to condense the steam. The company decided to design something to stop these leaves from entering the water system.” He reveals that the ruin at the bottom of Beebe Dam was a half-century old stab at solving problems with alternate energy. “They wanted a study made of the design to satisfy themselves that this would work. That’s what [the ruin] is: a hydraulics lab.” The lab allowed full-scale investigations in the power of running water. Hovi recalls that when the laboratory was up and running, it was fully accessible by car.
According The New York Times, the now abandoned hydraulics lab was built in 1898 “to foster the progress of hydraulic science” at the cost of $15,000 — almost $2 million today based on GDP per capita. It was built in a 12th-century Florentine style with local stone intended to match the cliff face. The lab could handle 3,000 cubic feet of water from Beebe Lake Dam used to conduct a variety of experiments, including scale models of ships in turbulent water. The Times reported that the lab was abandoned in the late 1960s because of damages from a flood.