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Past panes

  Charles Milhauser  

Cornellians and windows have a special history. Rebellious students tossed hymn books out the chapel windows. When two cannons intended for military training were emplaced on the lawn next to Old Sem, then the Ladies Boarding Hall, pranksters fired the guns in the dead of night to scare the women and shatter their windows. Later, when the library was housed in Old Sem, students, frustrated because books they needed to borrow were kept on reserve, lowered them from a second-floor window and returned them hidden under their coats.

Until the 1930s, most students rented rooms in town in college-approved houses where landladies were required to enforce a nightly curfew. Students became adept at climbing in and out of their own or another’s window. However, after a canny landlady had locked the doors and downstairs windows, the challenge was to reach an upstairs window where there was no climbable tree or drain pipe. One solution was to knot the end of a long string around the toe of a housemate and drop the other end out a window. Upon returning, the night owl yanked the string to alert the accomplice to creep downstairs and open the door. Sometimes this stratagem failed because the co-conspirator was a sound sleeper. Rather than overnight in the nearest barn, those locked out frequently found their way to the Guild Hotel, climbed its fire escape, found an unoccupied room, and slept in comfort before sneaking out before dawn. Mrs. Guild complained that her beds were often slept in but not paid for.

Guild was directly across Main Street from Altoona Hall. When the college housed men in Guild and women in Altoona, the men found that binoculars improved their view into the windows of Altoona. Later, when men lived in Altoona, they shouted ungentlemanly comments from their windows at passing women students. To annoy townspeople and the nearby Methodist and Presbyterian churches, some Altoona residents delighted in placing a radio in an open window and setting the volume control at loudest.

One night, pranksters entered South Hall through a window and stole the taxidermal specimens from the biology museum and put the stuffed bear in a tree, the alligator in the fountain, and birds on various perches. In College Hall, a professor unlocked a basement room and discovered a couple in a non-academic activity atop the seminar table. Embarrassed, he shut the door, and the students escaped through the window by which they had entered.

Cornell’s first theater was a room on the top floor of College Hall. The only way to enter or exit the stage without passing through the audience was to use the fire-escape window at the rear of the stage. Although forbidden to sleep on the fire escapes, Bowman women on hot nights did so until an overzealous dean of women had the windows nailed shut. Bowman fire escapes attracted Peeping Toms as well as boyfriends.

The west window in King Chapel bears this inscription from the Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree.” Directly across in the east window is “He giveth his beloved sleep.” It is said the two windows admonish new Cornellians that the choice is theirs for the next four years to flourish or sleep.

Altoona Hall residents used their windows to send a message to Cornell’s athletic rival.












Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at or 100 Intracoastal Place, Apt. 307, Tequesta, FL 33469.






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