Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Balch Hall will undergo extensive renovations that could take up to two years of construction.

October 29, 2021

A Brand-New Balch: University to Renovate Historic Women’s Dorm

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Balch Hall — home to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s college bedroom, old-fashioned “sink rooms” and the Instagram account @bugsofbalch — is about to get a makeover. 

According to Karen Brown, senior director of campus life marketing and communications, renovations will begin this fall or winter on the Gothic dorm for women students. Architects on the project say they will modernize the building while upholding its historic integrity.

These plans are finally hitting the ground after architecture firm Goody Clancy began planning with the University 3.5 years ago. After two years in a design stage, the pandemic partly put the project on hold. A 2020 building permit application described the project as a “full-gut renovation” of the building, while the exterior will remain intact.

“It’s hard not to love Balch. It’s just lovely,” said Lisa Ferreira, architect at Goody Clancy and co-lead on the project.

But broken windows, dysfunctional utilities, inaccessible entrances and general antiquities necessitated change. The renovation will update all utilities and recreate much of the interior, replacing all bathrooms, bedrooms and sink rooms and making space for about 280 beds. Once known for its multitude of roomy singles, 80 percent of new rooms will be doubles. 

The architects plan to install new lounges on each floor and maintain the original ones, for a total of at least 16 common spaces. Zsuzsanna Gaspar, architect at Goody Clancy and project co-lead, said the former layout, with maze-like hallways and few group spaces, did not encourage student interaction.

“[Resident advisers] had to work really hard to pull their communities together,” Gaspar said. 

Each floor will feature a new lounge similar to this illustration, while original lounges will be maintained. Rendering courtesy of Goody Clancy.

Changes will also include four new elevators and reconfigured entrances to improve accessibility, including a gently sloped path to the building’s signature arch, once only accessible by stairs. The arch, once a meeting spot and a hub for a cappella concerts, has been indefinitely closed since 2020.

The project will also install air conditioning throughout the building. 

Mock-ups demonstrate what a newly renovated Balch Hall may look like. Rendering courtesy of Goody Clancy.

Former residents have mixed feelings about the renovation. Former RA Isabelle Aboaf ’21 said she loved the ceilings’ ornate molding, the staircases, vintage mailboxes and wooden furniture. Each dorm had Balch-specific desks and bookshelves with heart engravings. Phoebe Dacek ’19 called the interior decorating “so Ivy League.” Most of the furniture will be discarded; the staircases will stay.

Sarah McDonald ’19, former resident and three-year RA, agreed that Balch needs updates, remembering broken window screens. Last spring, entire panes flew out during a windstorm.

“Crisis would usually hit all at once,” McDonald said. “There’d be a bunch of laundry machines overflowing. There was a bat I chased down once. Once we found a lobster inside of a bathroom.”

However, McDonald had a soft spot for the building’s original features.

“It’s gotten pretty bad, and it really needs to be updated,” McDonald said. “But I love those windows. They’re part of what makes Balch unique.” 

According to Gaspar, new windows will mimic the original style, and the renovation will preserve the building’s exterior. 

Other nods to the building’s history will include original bedroom doors repurposed as wall paneling in lounges — and special regard will be given to Ginsburg’s old door. 

Unlike in a new build, in a historic building, factors like existing windows and columns make design more difficult. Gaspar said they embrace a “quirky standard.”

“We just had to learn to love all its quirkiness and make the best of it,” Gaspar said.

First opened in 1929, Balch was the result of a $1,650,000 donation for new women’s halls by Allen C. Balch ’89 and his wife, formerly Janet Jacks, who finished Cornell graduate school in 1888. The University, unlike other Ivy League institutions, was open to women from its inception in 1865. The Balches asked that any net operating revenue go toward increasing the salaries of professors. 

Before Balch opened, women lived in Sage College, now Sage Hall and home to the S.C. Johnson College of Business.

Balch Hall was first opened as an all women’s dormitory in 1929. Photo by Troy Studio, courtesy of Cornell University.

At the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, the University used Balch for quarantine housing, especially during a record spike in COVID-19 cases. Infected students are no longer isolating in Balch, according to Brown, and the University will instead rely on area hotels if needed. As of Oct. 29, Cornell has 11 active COVID cases on campus.

While Balch is empty this year, the new Toni Morrison Hall is exclusively for women students. Some students have criticized the new North Campus Residential Expansion building layouts as being “office-building-esque,” a departure from the distinctly homey Balch. 

Gaspar could not determine when the Balch renovation would be complete, but said similar projects typically require 18 to 24 months under construction. The University recently completed construction on two new dorms on North Campus, which opened to residents this year. 

As campus continues to change, the renovation makes McDonald nostalgic. Her mother, a Cornell alumna, also lived in Balch. She wants the building to retain its original character. 

“I just hope they do it justice,” McDonald said.