Built by design
Carefully planned, distinctively preserved, and now evolved for modern learning. Cornell’s ideal campus setting is a national treasure.
By Professor Emeritus of History The Rev. Dr. Richard Thomas
Many colleges founded before the Civil War—colleges like Cornell—shared assumptions about not only what should be taught but also where it should be taught. Learning required discipline and contemplation most easily achieved by limited isolation.
A college is a place of learning and meditation where all share in directed disciplined conversation. Close proximity is desirable and possible. Structures must be physically close, and in a walking culture the distance must remain short to encourage personal interaction. The buildings for living and learning were planned to enhance the sense of community that was at the heart of the experience of learning—the philosophical underpinnings for determining the best environment for learning.
Cornell retains this philosophy today as a residential liberal arts college.
For a college such as Cornell, founded by a Methodist minister, the ideal setting for learning is in the midst of a quiet place of beauty. It requires a vista as a constant reminder of the greatness of the creator and the generosity of the great maker of human cells, ants, and stars. A place where the learners know the power of the wind, the bitterness of the blizzard, as well as the unspeakable colors of autumn leaves—to experience the generosity of God and the strength beyond the self to endure climate shifts as well as conquer the pains of the heart.
Indeed, the Cornell College campus has, since 1853, provided the vista, the beauty, and the extremes of seasons. In 1980 it deepened its commitment and showed its respect for the historic setting and buildings by becoming the first campus to be named in its entirety as a National Register District. During the current strategic planning process, the historic campus emerged as one of five themes of the upcoming strategic plan: “Enhancing a beautiful and well-purposed historic campus.”
The Rev. Bowman may have been the charismatic driver of the movement to build Cornell, but it was five or six forward-looking merchants who provided the capital to initiate the adventure and regular contributions to sustain it. None of the founders of this college had more than a few years of education, nor did they know how to run an academy. They did have faith in Bowman, God, and vision. They believed they were involved in accomplishing a sacred task—in addition to attracting educated persons who would provide leadership for civil life and bring students who stimulated commerce. (The college has maintained an affiliation with the United Methodist Church, and from the beginning has welcomed people from all religious traditions and from all non-religious perspectives.)
Once the setting was secure the next task was to create structures for instruction and living facilities. Chance and opportunity joined with intention in campus planning. The reason for the placement of Old Sem is unknown but it is near the center of the original 20 acres of land at what was then the edge of town. The placement of College Hall to the east (towards the town) gives an early indication of plans to fill the east end of the campus. This is logical as the land to the west of Old Sem was a farmstead that blocked expansion in that direction. It would be later in the century when Cornell was able to purchase a large part of the land that allowed expansion.
In the West, before the Civil War, most new college buildings were adaptations of the popular Greek Revival style. The shape of the building and its limited exterior decoration was easily traced to the main lines of Greek architecture and design. What better style for a learning community than one that makes frequent visual reference to the Classical period that constituted the heart of the curriculum—emphasizing the role of the arts and the training of the mind in creating Western civilization? Cornell is no exception to this larger trend in college building.
Another feature of the early buildings on the campus is that they are “rooted” in their place by the materials used in their construction. The sand, water, and clay for the bricks are all locally available and together give the color of the brick a rather unique hue and color tone.
Thus the structures and the site form an organic union of nature and human creativity.
The Cornell of the 19th century conformed to the assumptions that guided so many of the new colleges in the West. The addition of acres to the west provided the school with an opportunity to build along the ridge of hilltop.
By 1880 it was clear to trustees that the early decision to admit women as full members of the community was a solid financial decision. The rising number of women attending prompted the construction of a residence where women could enjoy their own community away from men. Bowman himself urged this adventure and raised considerable money to make it possible. The design of the building supported the popular notions of domesticity and encouraged the type of social etiquettes needed by women with a college degree destined to become community leaders. Bowman Hall is in essence a very large home (“domicile”) for the assumed needs of women.
At the 50th anniversary of the college (1903) the campus of five buildings and the