Cornellians crave order. Our campus teems with neurotic overachievers who meticulously plan their days, their semesters and their careers. But Cornell, an inherently disorderly institution, often leaves these order-seekers wanting.
Cornell’s disorganization might be most evident in its campus landscape; to the chagrin of many, the buildings that form the East Hill skyline are a seemingly incoherent mishmash of architectural styles. But we should value Cornell’s architectural hodgepodge, as it reflects our identity as a “non-pretentious college,” (as historian Morris Bishop ’13, Ph.D. ’26 put it), and embodies the once-radical principles that have guided the university for more than 150 years.
As Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s co-founder and first president, dreamt of a uniquely American university “worthy of the state and nation,” he imagined “air castles” on “queenly site above New York’s fairest lake.” His vision was a self-conscious one; his institution would rival the great universities of Europe, with “towers as dignified as those of Magdalen and Merton” and “quadrangles as beautiful as those of Jesus and St. John.” And, of course, it would have “a lofty campanile . . . a clock tower looking proudly down the slope, over the traffic of the town, and bearing a deep-toned peal of bells.”
But White would be forced to compromise. “Alas!” he wrote, “I could not reproduce my air-castles.” The founders lacked the time and money to fulfill White’s dream of a Gothic campus, and, in any case, frugal Ezra Cornell, according to architectural historian Kermit J. Parsons, was “not particularly concerned with innovation in building style or arrangement.” So Cornell’s first buildings, Morrill Hall and White Hall, would be, in White’s words, “simple, substantial, and dignified,” and built from inexpensive, sturdy and locally-quarried Ithaca bluestone. Though these unexciting, get-the-job-done structures just met White’s minimum standards, they were far from ideal campus buildings; Goldwin Smith, whose namesake building would face “Stone Row” from across the Arts Quad, once opined that “nothing can redeem [Morrill, McGraw, and White] but dynamite.”
In 1891, with the construction of McGraw Tower, White got his wish for a proud “campanile,” a vaguely Italian bell tower that would come to define our university. Later, in 1906, nearly 40 years after the 1868 opening of both Morrill Hall and Cornell University, White would celebrate the opening of Goldwin Smith Hall, whose towering columns and dominant presence gave it European-style gravitas. And though Gothic Baker Tower and Founders Hall would be constructed on West Campus near the end of White’s life, his vision was left only partially fulfilled. An ambitious plan to expand the Gothics to cover a wide swath of West Campus never came to fruition.
Though a campus dominated by Oxford-style “air castles” would be a breathtaking sight, it’s for the best that White was disappointed. Cornell, needless to say, is not Oxford, and the British institution’s beautiful yet ostentatiously elitist architectural aesthetic would be out of step with the egalitarian, populist principles on which Cornell was founded. Some ostentation is a good thing; in moderate doses, it commands respect, especially when balanced with the plain yet confident utilitarianism of buildings like the Libe Slope bluestones, but it shouldn’t dominate.
Architecturally uniform universities that cling too tightly to traditional conventions can project a disconcerting sense of institutional insecurity, something Cornell, as I’ve previously argued in these pages, needs to kick. A few years ago, I visited a well-regarded public institution in my home state of Ohio, nearly all of whose buildings, whether historical or modern, had been designed in the same Georgian Revival style — yes, I did have to look this up. Though I was able to take plenty of nice pictures, the campus made me uncomfortable; the quads were a little too perfect, so close to the collegiate ideal that I wondered if the school was compensating for something. It seemed painfully evident that the midwestern institution self-consciously sought to appropriate the Colonial-Era gravitas (or pretension) of the oldest Eastern universities.
Cornell’s disorderliness, on the other hand, suggests the campus has evolved naturally and un-self-consciously, even if White’s original vision was a deeply intentional invocation of the aesthetic spirit of Europe. Instead of appropriating another school’s architectural tone, Cornell blazed its own path, incorporating traditional styles — from the Gothics to Willard Straight to Myron Taylor — alongside groundbreaking modern architecture — from the Johnson Museum to Gates Hall to the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library.
In doing so, Cornell has paid homage to the traditions of the ancient European universities and their Colonial-Era American heirs, while simultaneously asserting its identity as an institution determined to defy social convention and upend educational norms. Cornell’s mold-breaking campus landscape suits an institution committed since the 1800s to coeducation, non-sectarianism, racial integration, pedagogical innovation, academic freedom and responsibility and the pursuit of useful if unglamorous practical studies. These commitments sound standard today, but only because the rest of academia has evolved to catch up with Ezra’s institution; at the time of its founding, Cornell was nothing short of a radical experiment.
And because Cornell is a school that’s never played it safe, it’s produced boldly awful but lovable buildings that define the campus experience. The view from Uris Hall is beautiful because you can’t see Uris Hall, Ives is the labyrinthine high school/prison fusion no one ever asked for and the freshmen condemned to the low rises would probably be better off living in tents. And yet these buildings’ glaring flaws keep us tethered to reality in an ivory tower that can breed arrogance. It’s tough to let your Ivy League status go to your head when you’re lost for the 6th time on the way to your 10:10 a.m. ILR class or you’re sweating bullets in Ithaca’s oppressive September heat because your allegedly riot-proof dorm doesn’t have air conditioning.
Finally, Cornell’s juxtaposition of the old and new can symbolize our university’s social and moral evolution. Most notably, the symbiotic relationship between sleekly modern Klarman Hall and staidly traditional Goldwin Smith Hall is a manifestation of progressive poetic justice. Prof. Goldwin Smith, the 19th-century academic celebrity whose reputation and wealth helped establish Cornell as an elite institution, was once dubbed “the most vicious anti-Semite in the English-speaking world” and was a prolific author of racist anti-Jewish tirades. Seth Klarman ’79, the billionaire benefactor who funded the construction of his namesake building attached to Goldwin Smith Hall, is one of America’s most successful Jewish businessmen. Though Smith contributed a great deal to Cornell, his noxious racism was an affront to the radically tolerant ideals of nonsectarianism and racial integration on which this university was founded. By contrast, Klarman Hall, whose bright, open spaces reflect the welcoming spirit that should define a progressive university, is a symbol of our university’s values and a repudiation of Smith’s vile ideology.
Whether you embrace the Cornellian hodgepodge or seethe at its disorderliness, there’s no doubt the words of our alma mater ring true. “Reared against the arch of heaven, looks she proudly down.”
John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected] Regards to Davy runs every other Tuesday this semester.