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Building a college

  Sesquicentennial  

Cornell’s campus and Mount Vernon as seen from the train depot in 1895.

Over the past 150 years many changes have come to the Cornell Hilltop, but none are more visible than the growth of the campus itself from one plain brick building to a diverse collection of structures reflecting changes in architectural tastes and academic needs over the decades.

Cornell is unique in its longstanding commitment to maintaining its buildings by rehabilitating them for other uses as the needs of college have dictated. As a result, while other campuses have demolished their historic structures, every major building constructed at Cornell is still present, serving the needs of students in the 21st century, just as some of them served students in the Civil War era.

President Herbert Burgstahler (right) and speaker Fred Sargent, president of the Chicago & North Western Railway, at the laying of the cornerstone for Merner Hall.

The first building on the Cornell campus, Old Sem, was under construction before the Iowa Conference Seminary opened its doors in 1853. Local brick maker William Albright made the bricks for the three-story structure, although lumber for the building was brought from Dubuque and windowsills from Anamosa. The entire building, including furniture, cost around $9,000.

Although construction began in the summer of 1852, the new building was not ready for use until November of 1853, and even then the interior had yet to be painted. The Seminary Building, eventually known as Old Sem, contained the chapel, music and recitation rooms, a kitchen and dining room, and housed women students on the second floor and faculty members on the third floor, for a total of 55 residents in its first year. Principal Samuel Fellows, his wife, and two daughters lived in two rooms, the larger of which was only 15-by-17 feet on the third floor. The college provided students, who generally boarded three to a room, with a rope bedstead, two wooden chairs, and a small pine table. Candles provided the only light at night, and the building lacked indoor plumbing. A large bell hung in a frame at the northeast corner of the building and was rung to announce the start of classes.

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