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Trivial Pursuit, Cornell Style


Charles Milhauser

The ruins of Old Sem after the Feb. 20, 1924, fire caused by a chemistry professor who forgot to turn off his Bunsen burner.

The pursuit of trivia in Cornell history reveals many oddities: A mess hall in King Chapel. A hospital ward in Bowman Hall. A family connection to Ernest Hemingway. Following are some of the most peculiar Cornelliana.

Between 1892 and 1924 Old Sem had a fourth-floor mansard that provided three studios for the art department. The wooden structure was destroyed in the fire of 1924 that began after a chemistry professor forgot to turn off his Bunsen burner when he left his third-floor laboratory sometime after midnight.

Alumni Hall is the only Cornell building designed by an alumnus, Grant Miller, class of 1899.

King Chapel, Bowman, Rood, and the nearby Boyd/Dillard house (Pinky’s Palace) were designed by Chicago architect Charles “Cass” Chapman. It is believed that Mount Vernon has more Chapman buildings than any other place in the world.

Margaret (Hamilton), Lady Waterlow, the wife of a former Lord Mayor of London, grew up in the Cornell President’s House.

Pfeiffer Hall was named for donor Henry Pfeiffer, the uncle of Ernest Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

President Russell Cole intended to name the library after his friend, Charles Horn, a Mount Vernon native and president of the Olin Foundation, generous contributors to Cornell (Olin Hall and Cole Library). Horn was equally insistent that it bear Cole’s name. The two had a protracted argument until Cole acquiesced.

The unfinished space in The Commons basement, nicknamed the Dungeon, was intended for a bowling alley. It is now classrooms.

During the scarlet fever epidemic, January and February 1917, the occupants of the fourth floor of Bowman Hall were evacuated and the entire space converted into a hospital. Later all the residents were temporarily housed elsewhere while the building was fumigated.

When a virulent form of influenza spread around the world in 1918, Cornell students lined up in front of the stage in the auditorium of King Chapel to have their throats sprayed.

In April 1939, the Iowa State Department of Health and the Cornell Health Commission set up shop in the biology laboratory in Law Hall to test students for tuberculosis and syphilis.

During World War I the college installed a kitchen and mess hall on the lower floor of King Chapel to feed the men of the Student Army Training Corps.

Because Mount Vernon’s Methodist Church was undergoing renovation and King Chapel was being readied for the May Music Festival in April 1968, the Methodists met in the Little Theatre in Armstrong Hall and baptized two babies there.

In October 1898, the Cornell YMCA installed in the basement of South Hall the first on-campus baths for men. There were four showers and one tub with shower attachment. A man paid $1.25 per term or $3 for the year (three terms), which entitled him to one bath or shower per week. The facility operated 20 hours a week and could process 25 men an hour.

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus.

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