October 29, 2013

‘The Castle on the Hill’: Risley Hall’s 100th Anniversary

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Christina Zhang ’15 has been a resident of Risley Hall since Aug. 2012.

This fall, Risley Hall celebrates its hundredth birthday. Opened in 1913 as a women’s dormitory, Risley is a co-ed program house dedicated to the creative and performing arts that houses 192 undergraduates. In the last few decades, Risley has evolved into a center for the campus arts scene, attracting students and artists from within and beyond the Ithaca community.

Located just beyond the Thurston Avenue Bridge, the red brick “Castle on the Hill” is the oldest building on North Campus. It houses a student-run black box theater; a dining hall often termed Cornell Dining’s best-kept secret; workshops for art, ceramics, jewelery, woodworking, sewing, and other crafts, a coffee shop; a small library; a dance studio and many other facilities. Given the abundance of facilities, it might seem surprising that Risley was not originally built for the arts. In 1911, the American philanthropist Olivia Sage gave $300,000 to Cornell for the construction of a second women’s dormitory (after Sage Hall, which now houses the Johnson Graduate School of Management). Sage requested that the building be named for her mother-in-law, Prudence Risley.

The architect, William Miller, had earlier designed the A.D. White House, Barnes Hall, McGraw Tower and a number of fraternities, among other buildings on and off campus. Risley was one of his later projects, designed in the Tudor Gothic style. Its floor plan is unique: throughout Risley’s four residential floors and two castle towers, no two rooms are identical in shape and size. Some feature window seats, defunct fireplaces and balconies. Before Risley became co-ed, some rooms had adjacent maids’ rooms; the largest of these have since been converted to full rooms, while others have been boarded up. The dining hall was designed at the request of Andrew Dickson White, modeled directly after the Christ Church’s dining hall at Oxford and featuring stained glass windows. Prudence Risley Hall was completed within two years and opened at the start of the 1913 school year. In addition to the dining room, it boasted a ballroom, a two-story library, lounges and kitchens and unusually lavish public spaces decorated by art pieces donated by A. D. White himself.

In 1970, Judith Goodman ’71 and Gail Hassan ’71 developed plans for a living unit to house students interested in the arts. Risley was chosen because many of its existing facilities were easily convertible to art studios or music practice rooms. With the help of then-Associate Dean of students, Ruth Darling, Risley became an arts-themed residential college, the first of Cornell’s program houses. By March, it was accepting applications. The project was overwhelmingly well-received across campus and saw over a thousand applications in its first year, each of which was carefully reviewed by a committee of faculty members and the students who led the process. Goodman and Hassan hoped to revolutionize the traditional college living experience and build a community of dedicated and diverse individuals from all colleges and years. Today, applications to become a Risley member or the artist-in-resident are open for evaluation by all current residents, continuing a tradition of self-governance and community spirit.

One of Risley’s most notable features is its system of government. Risley’s Kommittee is one of the most active hall governments on campus, and it meets every Sunday to vote on business items such as budget allocation, use of facilities, house programming and so on. Officership is partially appointed and partially elected, but meetings are open to all Risley members. The Risley Charter is available to the public for reference. Despite many amendments to it over the years, the system has changed surprisingly little as a whole, embracing both an earnest drive for creative innovation and a quirky legacy. Historically, Risley has always occupied a progressive space at Cornell, and it is proud of its series of firsts: when Risley became Cornell’s first program house in 1970, it also became its first co-ed dormitory. In 1975, it became the first to experiment with co-ed bathrooms, which have been the arrangement ever since. The only exceptions are the two single-sex hallways, nicknamed “Monks” and “Virgins.”

The castle is also famous for Risley Theater, the only fully independent theater on campus. Historically, the space was a ballroom until 1974;  Cornell’s physical education department held dance classes and formal dances were also held for holidays and special occasions. In the Spring of 1974, Paul Hertzberg ’77 and Timothy Holcumb ’77 envisioned its transformation into a modern black box theater. The project was taken up enthusiastically by Risleyites, who gathered supplies over the summer and constructed the 88-seat theater within a mere 4 weeks. The theater opened in late November with a production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Today, the theater remains completely student-run, and is governed by “T-Sub,” the Risley theater sub-committee. It hosts a diverse variety of shows — including musical theater, classical plays, improv comedy — as well as student-penned plays that are submitted for consideration on a semesterly basis.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into Risley three years ago was its vibrant colors — murals lined entire hallways from floor to ceiling, many bearing signatures from decades past. Since then, I have fallen in love with the Risley community, whose colors are similarly vibrant. Risley is a truly unique space, where I have been welcomed like nowhere else. We preserve and cherish our legends — from that of the ghost of Prudence Risley, who is said to haunt the castle, to the infamous and sometimes scandalous tales of Risleyite mischief from previous generations. We continue to celebrate our history and traditions with yearly programs such as Masquerave, Rocky Horror, Handel’s Messiah and Harry Potter Night, all of which bring Risley closer to the greater Ithaca community. A number of motions passed by Kommittee in recent years have raised some hell across campus, such as the decision to purchase a dance pole in 2004 and the failed attempt to erect a pirate ship playground last spring. On a more serious note, in recent months the building has taken an interest in the upkeep and restoration of its murals, sparking a series of lively debates within the community about how this should be done without compromising their original integrity. Thanks to Kommittee and the efforts of many creative, hard-working individuals who make Risley the home it is for us today, we celebrate its 100th looking not only back but also forward.

The Risley Centennial Birthday Bash is scheduled for this November 21-24th, featuring a weekend of festivities.

Christina Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]