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South Hall: Demanded Then Abandoned

  Charles Milhauser  

As the college prepares for its sesquicentennial, South Hall will celebrate its 130th anniversary. It is the only Cornell building constructed in response to a student petition. The issue was discrimination: the college was offering women, but not men, the option of rooming and boarding on campus.

The Cornell Boarding Association (CBA) or Gentlemen’s Boarding Hall—Old Sem was the Ladies’ Boarding Hall—opened in January or February 1873, having cost about $8,000. It included 22 double-occupancy rooms, each with two windows and a wood-burning stove. The top two floors had eight rooms each. The first floor had six student rooms and a two-room suite for the cook. When engineering professor Sylvester Niles Williams and alumna Mary Fancher Williams married in 1876, they moved in as houseparents. Their son, Sylvester Vernon Williams, Class of 1901, was born in the building in 1883.

Living conditions were less than ideal as evidenced in 1877 when four residents fired three revolvers and a shotgun at rats. Another rat was caught in the cook’s trap. Two rows of outhouses descended downhill from the back of the building until 1916.


Because of the CBA’s strict rules and faculty supervision, it failed within a decade to attract enough roomers to remain viable. It was gradually converted for academic use by the principal of the Cornell high school, the commandant of cadets, and the departments of geology, biology, engineering, psychology, Greek, archaeology, English, French, German, chemistry, history, political science, education, and secretarial training. The art department was the first to occupy more than one room. Between 1882 and 1892, it had two studios, a gallery, and a bedroom for the art teacher. The next major tenant was the Conservatory of Music. As an academic building, it was first called Art Hall, then Conservatory Hall and, after 1906, South Hall. Today it is home to English and politics.


South Hall was built after male students demanded on-campus housing. Within a decade, men wouldn’t live there because of strict rules and supervision.

In the 19th century, the building sheltered a natural history museum. One night, pranksters broke in through a window and stole some of the taxidermical specimens. The next morning, Cornellians crossing the campus saw a bear in a tree, an alligator in the fountain, and various stuffed birds on branches.

The basement originally contained a kitchen, dining room, two cellars, and a room for the kitchen maid. In 1898, the YMCA installed the first on-campus baths and showers for male students here, and in 1914 the college set up a shop with 18 benches for manual training. For many years, Cornell’s Hillside Press was quartered here and students printed on the Rogers electric press, among other items, the college’s renowned literary magazine, The Husk.

Late one evening in March 1940, after the janitor had locked the outer doors of South Hall, English instructor Ruth Messenger found herself trapped inside without a key. This was before crash bars were mandated and every faculty office had a telephone. Messenger exited via the fire escape. Hers is the only documented case of a faculty member escaping successfully from a Cornell building.

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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