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
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
housing. Within a
decade, men wouldn’t
live there because of
strict rules and
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
Charles Milhauser is
classics professor and
registrar emeritus. He
may be reached at