College Hall

From the beginning of the discussions, trustees referred to the new building as the “college edifice,” meaning that its intended use was to house the college. - C. William Heywood and Richard Harlan Thomas, Cornell College: A Sesquicentennial History, 1853-2003. Vol. 1.


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College Hall, also known as Main Hall, was the second building constructed on Cornell’s campus after Old Sem. When construction began in the fall of 1855, architects were so expensive that the Board of Trustees decided to have the hall built by students, faculty, and townspeople, based on a design picked out of a book. Students assisted master craftsmen in the stonework, woodwork, and other aspects of the building.[1] Faults in the brickwork, still visible today, reveal the amateur nature of College Hall’s construction. However, despite the novice workers, the building is still standing today, with only minor adaptations to keep it upright over the years.

The cornerstone of the building was laid on July 4, 1856, and the building was officially dedicated on November 26, 1857.[2] Once completed, it contained a 100 x 55 basement and was three stories tall, with an octagonal cupola on top.[3] Unlike other similar buildings, it only cost the college $22,000, due to the use of student workers and the lack of a professional architect.[4] Until 1889, it was known as the ‘Main College Building’, as it hosted all the classes for the college, while Old Sem hosted the seminary and preparatory school.[5] Very quickly it would become the center of both academic and social life on campus.

The building played host to many different aspects of college life. The first floor was the location of many of the faculty offices, including that of President William Fletcher King’s, whose office also housed the college library (until it was moved to the Carnegie Library) and his sleeping quarters.[6] The offices of the Dean, Admissions, Registrar, and Business also were located in College Hall until the renovation of Old Sem into an administrative building in 1959.[7] The second floor was left mostly unused except for visiting faculty, although at one time the Dean of Student Affairs and the school nurse had their offices there.[8] The third floor provided space for Cornell’s Literary Societies and the college chapel; when the chapel was moved to King Chapel in 1878, the space was opened for more meeting areas for the Literary Societies.[9]

The basement of College Hall has served a multitude of purposes over the years. It initially housed the gymnasium,[10] from 1873-1878 it was host to Cornell College’s armory,[11] and after that, it was home to Cornell’s bookstore, a position it would retain for the next eighty years until the bookstore was moved to Old Sem.[12] From 1916 until the renovations in 1977, the basement also contained College Hall’s only bathrooms.[13]

Indoor plumbing was installed in 1916, but otherwise, the building stood mostly unchanged until 1935, when it would be renovated for the first time, and then again in 1957. The largest renovation would take place in 1977, during which the entire hall was remodeled. Fire doors were installed, and the building was made handicapped accessible with an elevator and a ramp leading into the basement.[14] The floors were transformed into “quads” – suite-like spaces for faculty offices, clerical work space, and classrooms.[15] Room 301 was redesigned to evoke the era of the Literary Societies, complete with historically accurate wallpaper, chandeliers, and plaster cornices, as part of the room had belonged to the Aesthesian-Star-Zetagathian societies.[16] The original bell from the building’s beginning was also returned to the cupola, where it would remain until the building was struck by lightning in 2012.[17] In 2015, the cupola was restored, although the bell, which was melted in the fire, is no longer in use. After the renovation College Hall contained 24 faculty offices, seven classrooms and session rooms, a language laboratory, and an academic research room.[18]

Today, College Hall is home to the departments of Education, Economics and Business, Sociology and Anthropology, History, and Classical and Modern Languages.