September 19, 2013

EZRA’S ORACLE: Sept. 20, 2013

Print More

Ezra’s Oracle welcomes inquiries from members of the Cornell community about anything and everything related to the University. We seek out answers to campus mysteries, research rumors and investigate issues of relevance to Cornellians. Questions can be submitted via email to [email protected].

Q: How many Cornellians stay in Ithaca and become townies after they graduate?

— Inquiring Ithacan ’16

A: Ithaca is a wonderful place to live, so it’s no surprise that a lot of Cornellians choose to stick around after graduation (including our current mayor, Svante Myrick ’09). Many of those who don’t stay in Ithaca eventually return and settle down. As of this summer, the Ithaca area had nearly 7,800 Cornellians on record, the sixth most Cornellians out of any region in the world (the top five regions are New York City, Washington, D.C., greater Boston area, San Francisco Bay area, and northern New Jersey). Sometimes you need a few more years after you graduate to finish crossing things off the list of “161 Things Every Cornell Should Do.”

Q: Who is the elderly man in Uris Library who talks to himself?

— Shy Studier ’16

A: We sent one of our sleuths to investigate this one. The gentleman declined to identify himself beyond saying that he is a member of the Ithaca community. The Cornell University Library system is open to the public, and anyone can visit the libraries and use materials, databases and resources on-site. Accessibility has been a major goal of the library since its earliest days, and Cornell had one of the first college libraries in the country to be open for extended hours and to allow students to borrow books.

Q: Rumor has it that Cascadilla Hall was a psychiatric ward before it was transformed into a dorm. Is that true?

— In Need of Help ’15

A: Despite the rumors, Cascadilla Hall was never used as a psychiatric ward or insane asylum. The confusion likely stems from its initial intended purpose as a water cure “sanitarium,” or medical facility for the chronically ill. The effort to construct the building was led by Samantha Nivison, the first woman to practice medicine in Tompkins County, who hoped to use Cascadilla as an educational facility for women doctors. Ezra Cornell invested in the project, but when funding ran out, he bought out the other investors and completed the construction so that Cascadilla could become the first building at Cornell University (while Morrill Hall was still under construction). Many faculty and students lived there in the early years, although President Andrew Dickson White described it as “an ill-ventilated, ill-smelling, uncomfortable, ill-looking alms house.”

Q: Why are the fraternities all over the place? Other schools have a Greek Row.

—Tired of Waking Up in New Parts of Campus ’15

A: Greek life has been part of Cornell since the very start, and fraternity houses followed shortly thereafter. While most fraternities were still renting rooms in downtown Ithaca, Alpha Delta Phi made the decision to purchase land and build its own fraternity house in 1878 about halfway up Buffalo Street (the red brick apartment building with a corner tower above Schuyler Place). Three factors led fraternities to move toward West Campus, mostly in the southern area:

1. Cornell began allowing fraternities to lease University land.

2. The Stewart Avenue bridge across Cascadilla Gorge was built and improved accessibility.

3. Ithaca’s trolley system eliminated substantial pedestrian traffic up Buffalo Street. When Cornell benefactress Jennie McGraw died in 1881, her mansion was sold to Chi Psi and the property was subdivided and sold to multiple fraternities, leading to construction of houses on the northern end of West Campus.

As Cornell expanded across Fall Creek Gorge to north campus with Risley Hall in 1913, and then began building West Campus dormitories in 1914, more fraternities took advantage of the close proximity to students. Sororities began to move into their own houses in the late 1910s and early 1920s, mostly in the Cornell Heights area of North Campus.

Q: Who made up that legend about the Ezra Cornell and A. D. White statues getting up and shaking hands if a virgin walks across the Arts Quad at midnight?

— Waiting at Midnight ’15

A: As with most legends, pinpointing their exact origin is difficult, but it’s safe to say that this one has been around a long time. The A. D. White statue was dedicated in 1915, followed by Ezra Cornell’s statue in 1919 as part of Cornell’s semicentennial celebrations (delayed a year by World War I). It seems likely that some variation of the legend first began in the 1920s. The footsteps were painted on Halloween night in 1936, immortalizing the story for generations of Cornellians. A Cornell Daily Sun article from 1938 says that the painted footsteps caused “a humorous revival of a certain well known legend,” and the footsteps have continued to be repainted semi-regularly ever since.

Curious about Cornelliana? Looking for Cornell lore behind a legend? Submit your questions to [email protected]. Ezra’s Oracle appears alternate Fridays this semester.