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Building a college


A Bowman Hall floor plan pictured in a brochure announcing “New and Superior Boarding Facilities for Young Ladies.” Bowman opened in 1885.

After the completion of College Hall in 1857, Old Sem was converted to a ladies’ boarding hall. During the winter residents paid a fee to have firewood cut and carried into the building. Old Sem remained a residence hall until the construction of Bowman Hall in 1885, the year Old Sem was first called by its present name. Later the building housed the chemistry and art departments, until it was severely damaged in a 1924 fire. The building came to serve in 1959 as the college administration building, which it does to this day.

With increasing enrollment and the Seminary’s conversion into a college, construction of a new building was a necessity. Construction of the second building on the hilltop, today known as College Hall, began in the fall of 1855. A faculty and trustee committee planned the new building, while local craftsmen aided by students did the construction. Limestone for the foundation was quarried on the Cedar River, bricks were made by the Albright brothers in their brickyard to the east of campus, and lumber came from Muscatine and Clinton. The new building, which cost $22,000, was dedicated in impressive ceremonies in November 1857.

Academic attire was required when breaking ground for Law Hall, which opened in 1925.

The Rock in its original position in front of South Hall.

College Hall housed all of the college departments for several decades, as well as the chapel, the meeting rooms for the several literary societies, and living quarters for several early faculty members. Until 1959 the college administrative offices were in this building, which was fully renovated in 1978. The renovation maintained many features of the original structure, including the door to the college safe in the basement, a restored example of a 19th-century literary society hall on the third floor, and the carved message boards of the literary societies that line the main stairway.

For more than 30 years Cornell’s women continued to board and room in Old Sem despite lack of modern conUntil 1893, the campus was surrounded by a fence to defend against incursions from local livestock. veniences. To those young women who moved out of “the old Sem” and into Bowman Hall in 1885, this new dormitory must have seemed like one of the wonders of the world. Here were four stories capable of housing 100 women in comfortable double rooms illuminated by gaslights. Each floor had a bathroom and hot and cold running water. The dining room, where male students who roomed in town might take their meals, could seat 200 persons. George Bowman, the founder of the college, contributed a quarter of the cost for the new building, which was designed by Chicago architect Cass Chapman, who had recently designed the college chapel.

Bowman Hall has housed women except during World War II, when the Naval Flight Preparatory School landed on campus and took over the building for nearly two years. In 1989 Archie Carter ’33 and his wife, Marie, provided a gift that allowed for the renovation of Bowman’s interior. Today, the building is known as Bowman-Carter Hall in honor of its principal benefactors.

An experiment was tried to provide men with campus housing when the Cornell Boarding Association Hall, now South Hall, was built in 1873 at a cost of $7,000. At first popular, the dormitory style of life soon proved less appealing than that of the rooming houses which clustered around the campus. Despite being a new building, conditions within the boarding hall were less than ideal. On one occasion in 1877, four of the building’s residents fired three revolvers and a shotgun to kill rats. The strict regulations placed on the young residents made life in the new structure even more unbearable. Within a short time the boarding use was discontinued and the building was gradually converted to academic use, serving as the art building, as the home of the Conservatory of Music, and later, the English department. In 1981 South Hall was renovated and today serves as home to the Cornell English and politics departments.

It was not until 1929 that men were again housed on campus, with first-year men living in Guild Hall, a former hotel purchased by the college. In 1936 Merner Hall, made possible through a donation from Henry and Anna Merner Pfeiffer, provided a residence for upper-class men as well. Merner Hall was renovated in 2001. Today, 95 percent of Cornell students live either in one of nine residence halls or in college-owned apartments.

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