September 27, 2012

Architectural Tour of West Campus Yields Lessons in University History

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A glimpse into Cornell’s past and its relationship to the campus’ present: this is what participants were treated to Thursday morning, in an architectural tour of West Campus led by Roberta Moudry ’81 M.A. ’90 Ph.D. ’95, a Cornell architectural historian and former Sun associate editor.

“We really look at the campus and say, ‘Why does this look the way it does? What kind of things does the University want to provide for people?’” Moudry said. “Those questions don’t seem architectural, but they are.”

Thursday’s tour, which was open to the public, marked the third consecutive year that the Campus Club of Cornell University –– a group that provides lectures, book clubs and other social activities for women with ties to Cornell –– sponsored Moudry’s tour.

“I typically like to kick off our events for the year with a Roberta tour. She’s excellent,” said Marilyn Gray, the club’s program chair.

The tour was primarily focused on giving participants a rundown of the design and history of the residential housing on Cornell’s West Campus.

Cornell’s founders did not consider housing an important priority for the University, Moudry said on the tour. Former University President Andrew Dickson White, who believed that dormitory life was “uncivilized,” was a proponent of students living in family-style housing or fraternities, she said.

“A.D. White didn’t like dorms. He didn’t have a great housing experience at Yale,” Moudry said. “He thought people would be better behaved and would know each other better if they lived in houses.”

As Cornell’s student body expanded, however, the need for on-campus housing increased. Risley was built as an all-girls dormitory in 1911, with North Campus eventually growing beyond it to provide more women’s housing, according to Moudry.

Work soon began on West Campus to construct men’s housing. The layout of the campus was designed around McGraw Tower as its central focal point, Moudry said.

“The tower is part of the library; it’s symbolic of where knowledge goes to gather,” she said.

Moudry added that the West Campus architects hoped to build Gothic-style buildings similar to those that were constructed at Princeton University and the University of Chicago at about the same time.

She noted a lack of entrances into West Campus from the rest of campus — a characteristic that Moudry said “speaks to the Gothic-ness of these structures.”

“There’s this idea that the University is a place for the elite, so the inside environment is pure, intellectual. You’re protected from the outside,” Moudry said.

In the 2000s, renovation began to reorganize West Campus housing into five distinct residential colleges. Today, each of the dormitories — Alice Cook House, Carl Becker House, Hans Bethe House, William T. Keeton House and Flora Rose House — still aims to foster an intellectual community for its residents, Moudry said.

Prof. Scott Macdonald ’78, philosophy, dean of Hans Bethe House, said that West Campus offers ongoing programs — in-house courses, service learning activities and other projects — to provide students and faculty opportunities to interact in an informal setting.

“Students have a great experience because of the nature of the houses and the nature of the programming,” MacDonald said.

Huma Haider ’15, who lives in Carl Becker House, echoed MacDonald’s sentiments, saying that the communities found in West Campus housing make up for the small size of the rooms in many of the buildings.

“My roommate’s in the knitting club, and there’s a sailing club, and we get discounted tickets to events — and that’s just in Becker,” Haider said. “Each house has its own things going on.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler