September 9, 2009

History: Finding Cornell’s Forefathers in Sage Chapel Crypt

Print More

This is the first in a series examining Cornell’s underground hot spots.

While Cornell is often described as being “far above,” evoking images of the clocktower and majestic buildings, there is a whole world to explore beneath the surface of campus. With more than 260 major buildings on 745 acres of land, the Cornell campus is filled with mysterious basements, tunnels and vaults.
A journey into the basement of Sage Chapel is like traveling back in time. From the antique seafoam green Carrier air conditioning unit to the hallway filled with 19th century photographs of Cornell’s Glee, Banjo and Mandolin Clubs, the dank chapel basement appears much the same as it did decades ago. The decrepit bathrooms have certainly seen better days. Two small offices filled with computers and sheet music are the primary evidence of civilization, providing a workplace for the officers of the Glee Club and Chorus who diligently plan concerts and singing tours.[img_assist|nid=37916|title=Below the weight of Cornell|desc=The remains of a number of many notable Cornellians lie within the crypt’s stone boundaries.|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=225]
Although the nonsectarian chapel was built in 1873, it was significantly renovated and expanded in the following decades. The crypt was added in 1883 to serve as the final resting place for important members of the Cornell community. Today, the crypt holds the bodies or ashes of fourteen individuals: founders Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White and their wives, New York Governor Alonzo B. Cornell and his wife, two infant children of White, trustee John McGraw, benefactress Jennie McGraw Fiske, university librarian Willard Fiske, President Edmund Ezra Day and his wife and President Deane Malott. The apse at the east end of the chapel separately holds the remains of trustee Henry Sage and his wife.[img_assist|nid=37917|title=Peaceful rest|desc=The Sage Chapel crypt was designed as a true Gothic vault by then Cornell archtecture Prof. Charles Babcock.|link=node|align=right|width=336|height=225]
Besides the cabinets of music, dusty choir robes of the now-defunct Sage Chapel Choir and miscellaneous debris, the rest of the chapel basement is storage. Cobweb-filled rooms with names like the “dead room” and “mud room” hold maintenance supplies and various artifacts collected by the Glee Club and Chorus on their international travels. The occasionally water-filled mud room is reminiscent of a medieval dungeon, although it was substantially cleaned up for asbestos removal in the last five years. For many years, there was even a farmer’s scythe stored in a basement crawlspace, perhaps leftover from a skit by the Hangovers, who share the Glee Club’s basement office.
Next time you pass by the chapel, pay your respect to the remains of our founders. Or stop in and say hello to the singers who toil away underground.