Many students today might associate Willard Straight Hall with COVID-19 surveillance testing or free popcorn on campus. Dedicated to the University by Dorothy Elmhirst on Dec. 15, 1925, the building has a rich history centered around student life.
At the time of its construction, the building replaced Barnes Hall as the location for student extracurricular activities on campus. It was designed to have two separate entrances, the north entrance for men, and the smaller south entrance for women. Correspondingly, it had separate lounges inside for each sex.
The building was donated by the widowed Dorothy Elmhirst, who survived her husband, 1901 graduate Willard Dickerman Straight, after he died in World War I.
Elmhirt presented the building upon its completion.
“We present this Hall, President Farrand, to be guided and governed by the students, and made by them, through their own adventures of spirit here, an instrument for the illumination and enhancement of personal and social living,” Elmhirst said at Willard Straight Hall’s opening.
Willard Straight Hall was student-focused since its conception.
“[Willard Straight Hall is] a building which is given to enhance the enjoyment of the life of Cornell, which is given to the students themselves, to be their building, for use, for pleasure and the subject of their control,” said a Sun article on Oct. 6, 1926.
Today, this mission continues to hold true. Although the building was extended to expand the dining area in 1954, other elements have remained the same. Currently, the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board, one of the first student unions in North America, works to enhance student interests on campus and support the functions of the different offices within the building. The Board also hosts activities for students in the lobby, Memorial Room and Browsing Library.
“Academic activities are prohibited from occurring in the student union,” said Ansel Asch ’23, president of the Student Union Board. “The Student Union Board’s mission is to bring life to the student union, which we do through hosting events and activities.”
The building also serves as the home of Okenshields and Straight from the Market, two popular eateries for students on campus. Willard Straight also housed the popular Ivy Room, but the eatery merged with Okenshields in Spring 2021 to the dismay of students. Many students said they loved the Ivy Room for its atmosphere, food options and flexibility, but current students still frequent Okenshields and know it as the only dining hall on Central Campus that accepts meal swipes.
“I enjoy eating at Okenshields not only for the food selection, but also because of the seating offered,” said Adelle Dauhajre ’25, referring to the spacious floor plan.
Willard Straight has also served as a site of political expression throughout Cornell’s history. In 1969, members of Cornell’s Afro-American Society staged a takeover of the Hall due to the disciplinary punishments given to a group of Black students for conducting disruptive demonstrations — including dancing on the tables in Willard Straight during meal time — to protest the University’s lack of a Black studies program.
Thomas Jones B.A. ’69 M.S. ’72 participated in the takeover and is the author of the book, “From Willard Straight to Wall Street: A Memoir,” detailing his journey from the Willard Straight takeover to his leadership within the financial services industry.
According to Jones, Willard Straight Hall was an attractive target for the rally because the goal of the protesters was to draw attention.
“This was a giant thorn in the side of the University on parents’ weekend to have the social center of the campus occupied by Black students,” Jones said. “It was smart as a provocative tactic.”
Jones described Willard Straight as a hub for student interaction and engagement.
“In the 1960s, Willard Straight was really the center of campus, student, social and interaction. It was really the central meeting place,” Jones said. “It was the place where everybody hung out [and where] everybody had meals.”
Willard Straight now exhibits a plaque commemorating this takeover, revealed on the fiftieth anniversary.
In more recent years, the building has continued to serve as a prime location for student expression and protest. In 2016, Black Students United — the current name for what previously was the Afro-American Society — led a commemorative march on the forty-seventh anniversary of the takeover.
Current upperclassmen remember Willard Straight as the central location for receiving mandated COVID-19 tests in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
“I used to go to Willard Straight all the time to receive my surveillance test because it was close to my classes at the time,” said Stella Berman ’24. “I haven’t spent any time in the building once Cornell announced that vaccinated students no longer had to receive testing on campus.”
As a result of the pandemic, Willard Straight lost some of the liveliness that it commanded prior to the Zoom events and social distancing restrictions that resulted from the pandemic. However, the Student Union Board is working to bring the Willard Straight spirit back.
“When Cornell shifted to virtual instruction, the building understandably lost its purpose as a place for students to gather and socialize,” Asch said. “But we wouldn’t want this loss to be permanent and are now working to re-establish this purpose and bring back the student union.
The Student Union Board has also been working with the administration to make improvements to the building. However, Asch could not provide more specific information at this time on what these improvements will consist of.
“It is one of the finest buildings architecturally at Cornell, and we are grateful to call it our home,” Asch said.