South Hall is Cornell College’s third oldest building, completed in 1873 at the cost of $10,000. It is the only building constructed as a result of the students’ petition, as the men of the college felt left out because they weren’t given boarding facilities (women lived in Old Sem, which was then called the Ladies’ Boarding Hall). Initially called the Gentlemen's Boarding Hall, or the Cornell Boarding Association (CBA), it contained twenty-two dorm rooms capable of housing two students each. The first floor had a 2-room apartment for the cook of South Hall and her family, who worked in the basement dining hall.
Living conditions were not ideal, and there is at least one recorded instance of students attempting to shoot at rats. Prior to the construction of the heating plant in 1917, wood stoves present in each of the dorms rooms were used to provide warmth. Boarding costs were $1.25 per term, or $3.00 for a full year, comparable to the private housing rates many of the men already paid. However, the strict rules enforced by the CBA made students reluctant to live there, and by 1891 the Board of Trustees decided to convert the building to classroom space, to better utilize the building. Even though the building was used as classroom space, the YMCA built four showers and a tub in 1898, making this the first bathing facility on campus available to male students.
Due to the decreasing number of residents, Cornell’s newly created music department began using the upper floor of the Gentlemen’s Boarding Hall in 1878, changing the name of the building to Conservatory Hall. After the building was remodeled in 1891, it ceased to be used for student housing, and the geology department took space on the first floor, while the galleries of the art department established themselves on the third. By 1906, the music conservatory abandoned the building for Lytle House, and the building became known as South Hall. The geology department would move to the third floor, while the first floor was shared by the English department and Cornell Academy, a prep school that was run by the college until 1921. At one point during the 1890s, South Hall hosted a natural history museum, which was the victim of a prank by several students. They broke into the building one night, and the following morning students walking to classes were greeted by a bear in a tree, an alligator in a fountain, and birds in various trees, all taken from the taxidermied animal exhibit.
South Hall has, over the years, been host to almost every department. Until 1982, South Hall hosted the departments of geology, biology, chemistry, engineering, archaeology, psychology, history, political science, Greek, English, French, German, education, and secretarial training, in addition to art and music. It also housed the commandant of the Cornell Cadets for a time in the early 1920s. The basement in South Hall would later become the location for the Hillside Press, the first operating printing press at Cornell College.
In 1960, South Hall was renovated once more, with new floors, stairways, furnishings and a sprinkler system. These improvements appear to have been ineffective at revitalizing the building, as one professor called it “decayed, decrepit, psychologically depressing and a disgrace to the kind of education that took place here.” By 1972, the Board of Trustees considered tearing the building down. Faculty and students rallied to save the building with a petition containing 155 signatures. But the plan to destroy the building was abandoned before they submitted the petition.
On June 12, 1982, South Hall was rededicated after undergoing a series of renovations to make it suitable for the humanities departments. Today, South Hall is home to the English and politics departments, ensuring the continued use of this historic building.