Sage Hall: Experiments in Coeducation and Preservation at Cornell University

Harald via Flickr

It's been said that you could seat a wise professor on one end of a log and a dedicated student on the other and you'd have a university.  Of course the needs of the society and demands of the generations require more. Ezra Cornell established the university that bears his name in 1869 guided by a simple vision: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."  (Cleland and Stundtner suggest in their book that it's possible the university's first president, Andrew White, dressed up the words of his plain-spoken colleague who may have actually said, "I'd like to start a school where anybody can study anything he's a mind to.") But the great challenge during CU's first years, as it grew into a world-class institution awarding degrees in everything from aerospace to zoology, was not simply curriculum but co-education, serving "any person".

Cornell was among the first universities to admit women, disregarding the mores of the 19th century that believed women should tend to the home.  But to do so the institution had to seriously consider both academics and accomodations.  Male students could feel insecure around bright women classmates (many still do) and everyday life in Ithaca was not easy for men or women -- a lack of public transit forced many students to trek up long hills to the campus.  But these encumbrances were eased thanks to one of Cornell's first and most influential benefactors.  Henry Sage was a lumber magnate who endowed the Sage Residential College for Women on the Ithaca campus, as well as the Sage Chapel at the distinctly secular university.  Sage Hall was designed by Cornell's first architecture professor, Charles Babcock.  Construction began in 1872, the first students entered in 1875.  It later became a graduate dormitory and the only mixed residential and classroom building on the central campus.

The story of Sage Hall also opens up the stories of Cornell University, American higher education, social standards and the effort necessary to bring the building up to 21st century standards.  The old dormitory now serves as the home of the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management.  These developments are described in a new documentary history, "Sage Hall: Experiments in Coeducation and Preservation at Cornell University" by Jennifer Cleland and Robert P. Stundtner.  Ms. Cleland is a musician and holds a Ph.D. in Romance Studies from Cornell.  Mr. Stundtner is Cornell's Director ofCapital Projects and Planning and was project manager for the Sage Hall restoration.  Bob and Jenny are also husband and wife, and "Sage Hall" is partly a personal autobiographical work which has the effect of placing the book's theme of male-female relations into a contemporary context. But "Sage Hall" is still basically the inside story of a structure.  It is told primarily in the words of those responsible for the initial construction,

I believe that we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and poor young women of our country.  This is one thing which we have not finished, but in the course of time we hope to reach such a state of perfection as will enable any one by honest efforts and earnest labor to secure a thorough, practical, scientific or classical education.  The individual is better, society is better, and the state is better, for the culture of the citizen; therefore we desire to extend the means for the culture of all.                                                                      

    -- Ezra Cornell, 1868

as well as those who would exchange messages by e-mail 130 years later.

In a classic example of unforseen conditions, the bedrock is lower than expected at one end of the site and higher than expected at the other.  This means deeper digging or drilling to bedrock for footings or caissons at the low end and much harder excavation at the high end.  As a fossil hound, I wish I had the luxury to stop the work and explore the exposed bedrock.  Some layers are rich with the remains of the animals and plants from the ancient ocean [400 million years ago in the Devonian Age].  What will remain of Sage Hall that many years in the future?

    -- Robert Stundtner, 1996

When the cornerstone was set during the construction of Sage Hall, Ezra Cornell placed a letter in the lead box with a message for "The coming man and woman."  Normally, a time capsule would not be opened until a building is demolished, but it was located during the restoration work and "Uncle Ezra's" letter was unsealed.  It is read on OFF THE PAGE by WSKG's Sam Goodyear.  Its message turns out to still be pertinent.

Jennifer Cleland and Robert Stundtner join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to discuss history, attitudes toward education for women, the challenges of preservation and the work of reconstruction.  To join in with questions or comments call during the live 1:00 PM broadcast to 888/359-9754, or post a comment to OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.

Guests: 
Jennifer Cleland
Robert Stundtner