After more than a year of restoration and repurposing of the 146-year-old building, Sage Chapel officially reopened this September, inviting visitors into its amber and emerald hued gothic-style halls.
The chapel, which houses the graves of Cornell’s founding figures, including Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, has opened its doors after serving as a testing site in fall 2020. But student organizations say they continue to have limited access to the building due to COVID risks, and community members emphasize the need for further renovations in the building and on its historic organ.
Sage originally closed for repairs in summer 2020, but the renovation process was put on hold when the building became a COVID-19 testing site the following fall. In spring 2021, it closed down again to complete renovations that included refinishing the pews and floors.
During the chapel’s closure and repurposing, many student groups that have offices in the basement of the building lost access, including the Cornell Chorus and Cornell Glee Club — both of which have called Sage Chapel home for over 60 years and have rehearsed there for 107 years. Without their usual rehearsal space, both organizations have relocated to Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall, but have found rehearsing there to be a challenge.
“It has been difficult to rehearse in the auditorium because the chapel is so special. It has a choir loft that’s built for singing, and its acoustics are very beautiful. It’s just built for music,” said Caroline Hinrichs ’22, president of the Cornell University Chorus. “Klarman Auditorium is built for lectures. The seats that we sit in are not suited for music at all, but there’s not enough room on the stage to fit the entire ensemble.”
According to Sam Schneider ’22, president of the Glee Club, not having access to the club’s office has presented administrative and logistical challenges.
More than a semester after Cornell shut down the testing site, the Chorus and Glee Club still have not been given a clear idea of when they will be allowed back into the building, according to the club presidents. Though officers are allowed to retrieve things from their offices by setting up appointments with members of the music department, the students have found the process cumbersome.
“It’s just been really difficult not having access to that space,” Hinrichs said. “There are a lot of things in there that are pretty essential for the operation of an organization, from outfits to music, to the stationery that we use to communicate with our alumni.”
Though the chapel has undergone some renovations, University Organist Prof. Annette Richards, music, said there is much more to be done, both for the building and the historic Aeolian-Skinner Organ it houses. Richards explained that the organ is “a part of the fabric of the building,” complicating any needed repairs. Any repairs done to the building will affect both the organ and the chapel.
According to Richards, the refinishing of the floors resulted in a layer of dust settling on the organ, making it unplayable until the pipes are thoroughly cleaned — a laborious process that requires the individual removal and cleaning of every single pipe.
Cornell will clean the organ over winter break, but Richards emphasized that the organ needs much more than a cleaning — according to Richards, a full historic restoration is needed, but she said there is currently not enough funding for what would likely be a “million dollar project.”
“The historic nature of it means that if you’re going to do something to help the building, you really have to invest very heavily to do it properly. It’s an artwork too, and I think that perhaps contributes to the complexity and the expense of it,” Richards said. “It’s not enough just to come in and fix the roof. It really takes tremendously expert, careful work, and that’s very costly.”
Hinrichs and Schneider also noted the need for funding for the historic building. According to Schneider, Sage Chapel needs an individual or an alumnus to choose it as their priority.
“My hope is that if Sage finds a donor, it is somebody who recognizes that it is the historic home of the Chorus and the Glee Club and has been the center of so many important University events because of that,” Hinrichs said.
The chapel is also a landmark in the greater Ithaca community, and is home to the beloved annual Sage Chapel Christmas Vespers concert, put on by the Chorus and Glee Club. Hinrichs, Schneider and Richards all emphasized the need to preserve the building, which they described as a beautiful sanctuary, for years to come.
“I encourage any student that hasn’t been in Sage Chapel at sunset to do so, because the sun comes in from the stained-glass windows on the west side of the building, and it’s incredible,” Schneider said. “It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll see on campus.”
Richards said though it is understandable that Student and Campus Life has other priorities during the pandemic, she urges closer attention to the overlooked treasures around campus.
“A lot of historic buildings need work, and I think it’s a question of priorities. Sage Chapel is a very much loved building. It’s an iconic part of what Cornell is for many people,” Richards said. “It’s really our responsibility to preserve this kind of very beautiful fabric that the founders of Cornell created for all of us, and it should be there for us to enjoy.”