A More Perfect Union?
By the time Willard Straight Hall was completed in November 1925 after twenty months of construction, Cornellians were itching to get a look inside: according to the Daily Sun, some 4,800 people—students, faculty, and local residents—streamed through the front door to view “this new and tremendous institution of Cornell” on opening day, and 3,000 more the next. “After holding its mounting curiosity in leash for months, practically all undergraduate Cornell swarmed in to inspect and enjoy the magnificent building,” the Alumni News noted. As it enthused in the following issue: “The University is still rubbing its eyes and trying to realize that this marvelous building is all its own . . . Visitors were more impressed than their words indicated by the munificent outlay of costly furnishings, designed to provide all the comforts any hard-working student or professor could ask for, and by the unostentatious dignity of the whole building.”
Back then, not just anyone could avail themselves of the Straight’s comforts; after a five-day open house, it was members only. But that “membership” was expansive: all undergrads were automatically included, and for $8 a year (about $115 in today’s dollars), faculty, trustees, and grad students could join (as could alumni, for $5). “Membership of persons in the Faculty and Trustees class,” the Alumni News noted, “will carry with it the extension of privileges of the Hall to their wives.” Still, those wives were presumably not entitled to walk in through the front door. In the Straight’s early years, there were separate entrances and social spaces for men and women: the former used the grand portal at the front, while the latter came in through smaller doors on the south side. As University Archivist Emerita Elaine Engst, MA ’72, notes, the building’s benefactor—Willard’s widow, Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight—looked askance at the segregation. “Dorothy was explicitly not happy about that,” Engst says. “It made her really angry.”
But it could have been worse. Many had wanted Cornell to follow the example of other schools—including the University of Toronto, which Dorothy had visited on a fact-finding tour during the project’s planning stages—who reserved their student unions for men. As Rebecca Cofer wrote in her 1990 book The Straight Story, the separate entrances were a compromise proposed by the architect, “with the idea that women once inside the building would go to the ‘men’s side’ to buy their tickets for various events at the lobby desk, and eventually male and female students would mix freely, ‘except perhaps for the pool room, and barber shop.’ ”
Playing billiards and getting a haircut were just two of the Straight’s many offerings. It had a cafeteria, a library, a music room, lounges, living quarters, and a state-of-the-art theater, complete with orchestra pit and rotating stage. (The inaugural show—a drama club production of an eighteenth-century American comedy called The Contrast—starred future Oscar nominee Franchot Tone ’27.) For students, Cofer noted, the Straight offered “a nice place to go between classes, and a convenient and central place to meet friends, have a cup of coffee, or eat lunch.” It was especially appealing to those who hadn’t joined the Greek system, as E.B. White 1921 observed in an essay. “Before Willard Straight Hall was erected as a pleasance for the independent students, there was a disadvantage in not belonging to a fraternity,” he wrote, adding that the building “now offers all the comforts of home to everybody, and the fraternities are beginning to feel the way speakeasies felt after repeal: that there is nothing to be exclusive about anymore.”
Erected on the former site of two professorial cottages, the Straight was built into the side of Libe Slope—an idiosyncratic configuration that puts the main entrance on the fourth floor. It cost $1.5 million to build—just over $21 million in today’s dollars, which seems an enormous bargain—and another $100,000 to furnish ($1.4 million today). In the near-century since it opened, the Straight has seen countless logistical changes. For example, the space just inside the main entrance that used to be the barber shop (and later a bank) is now a conference room; the former billiard room is a dance studio, with mirrored walls and a commanding view of Ho Plaza. The theater, though still operational for live performances and recently renovated, has been home to Cornell Cinema since the late Eighties, when the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts was built in Collegetown. A ceramics studio, an ice cream shop, various TV lounges—those and many other amenities have come and gone over the years.
What used to be bedrooms on the fifth floor for students and guests were converted to other uses decades ago—though you can still see the outlines on the walls where sinks once hung, and several offices sport medicine cabinets. The Memorial Room—the building’s showplace, which recent grads have compared to the Hogwarts dining hall from Harry Potter—was originally outfitted as a lounge, with sumptuous couches; it has long been a multi-purpose space hosting everything from dances to career fairs. The inviting stone terrace on the fourth floor, originally located one level down and raised to accommodate an additional dining facility during World War II, now hosts summer weddings and outdoor film screenings. Where the Straight once had a single eating option, it now has three (four, if you count the free popcorn in the lobby): the Ivy Room, an “à la carte” establishment located in the original cafeteria space on the third floor; Okenshields, an “all-you-care-to-eat” place next door, for students on the dining plan; and Straight from the Market, a new counter service spot opened this semester on the fourth floor, offering grab-and-go meals with an emphasis on fresh produce.
Just as the building’s logistics have shifted, so have those of the wider campus—and those changes have lessened the Straight’s prominence in student life over the past half-century. Most saliently, the variety of dining options that have cropped up across campus since the Seventies has meant that fewer students make multiple daily trips to the Straight for meals. But the building’s fundamental purpose—uniting Cornellians across colleges, majors, and geography—has stayed the same. “What we see in the Straight now, and what we’ve seen for decades, is that it’s one of the few places at Cornell that isn’t tied to a single academic college,” says Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur, whose offices are located on the second floor. “It’s not tied to a department or program, and the students know that; they feel that. When I’m walking around this building I see interesting cross-pollinations happen as a result.”
In the Straight, the word “tabling” doesn’t refer to parliamentary procedure: it’s the act of sitting at a folding table in the lobby, soliciting passers-by to join a club, take up a cause, or buy tickets to an event. “Students will interact across tables—the ecological sustainability group will be tabling next to the undergraduate veterans’ group, and they’ll have a conversation because they’re sitting there waiting for people to come up and talk to them,” Pendakur says. “The prescience in Willard’s vision of giving the gift that could create this building was recognizing that Cornellians need a place to gather where they’re identifying not by college or by academic pursuit, but by their broader human interest. That’s part of what enriches the Cornell student experience and makes it not just a process of getting a baccalaureate degree, but of becoming an adult and emerging as a fully fleshed person and not just a fully fleshed mind.”
Especially during the tumultuous days of the Sixties and Seventies, the Straight› was a nexus for debate and political action. For years, a six-foot-tall stump outside the entrance—the last vestige of the row of stately trees that graced campus before perishing of Dutch elm disease—served as a soapbox for all manner of orators. And of course, the Straight was the site of the single most dramatic event in University history: the April 1969 takeover by African American students advocating for academic and social change. (During the takeover, which took place on Parent’s Weekend, visiting families were rousted from the Straight’s guestrooms, which were phased out afterward.)
But as Pendakur notes, the building that was a marvel nearly a century ago has serious limitations to serving today’s student body. For one thing, it’s not big enough; Cornell has more than 24,000 students today, compared to about 5,600 in 1925. “The square footage of this building and the number of reservable rooms are totally incommensurate with that size of a campus,” Pendakur says. “Students are always saying, ‘I can’t get a room in the Straight unless I book months and months out.’ From about 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. the whole year, every reservable space in this building is booked, because it’s one of the few places that any student can reserve a room. So we need to triple the square footage of reservable space to meet the needs. I don’t even know if that would get us there, but it would be a lot closer.”
Another major issue is that the Straight’s core heating, ventilation, and electrical systems essentially date from the Jazz Age. (And even then, there were issues: the building suffered blackouts both on its opening day and during the official dedication ceremony the following month.) Due to electrical load limitations, the Straight can’t be wired for now-typical tech services like “smart rooms” for videoconferencing. For the same reason, there’s little air conditioning, mainly limited to some window units—meaning that temperatures can soar into the nineties with high humidity, and on the hottest days some staff have to be temporarily relocated. Even the sound design in the Memorial Room is a relic of an earlier time. “The acoustics were set up to capture echoes and reverberate them, essentially as a low-tech way to amplify the unamplified voice,” Pendakur says. “The minute you have somebody on a mic with speakers, the acoustics are awful—it echoes all over the place and cancels out people’s ability to hear effectively.”
Then there’s the problem of accessibility. Built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Straight is challenging to navigate in a wheelchair. There’s only a freight elevator (run by a full-time attendant), located in inconvenient, back-of-house areas. Of the building’s six main floors, there’s no elevator access at all to the top two—and the same goes for some “half” floors accessible through small, narrow staircases. When Pendakur arrived, in fact, the Dean of Students’ office was located on the “fourth-and-a-half” floor, in a charming, wood-paneled suite complete with (nonworking) fireplace. But Pendakur immediately knew that he should relocate; his current office, in a renovated section of the second floor, can be reached via the freight elevator—not an ideal solution, but an improvement. Says Pendakur: “I think the dean of students at any school in the country would be concerned if a certain portion of the student body or faculty, staff, and parents couldn’t access their office.”
And as Pendakur points out, the issue of establishing full elevator service in the Straight goes beyond wheelchair access; parents pushing strollers—like his wife, who’d need to navigate the freight elevator to visit him at work with their two small children—are also limited, among others. “For people who have temporary mobility issues or who are in a late-term pregnancy, this is a very difficult building to manage,” he says. “That’s a key concern, because part of telling a campus, ‘This is your space,’ is also saying, ‘You can access it.’ ”
With the centennial of the Straight’s opening coming up in 2025, the University is eyeing a major renovation and expansion—potentially, Pendakur says, as part of the next capital campaign. “There is a pretty vibrant conversation right now, all the way up to the highest level of University leadership,” Pendakur says. “There’s some buzz in a way that I don’t think there has been in the past. It would be a real opportunity if we could come to an accord as a university that we want to prioritize this building for a full gut rehab plus expansion. Expansion is imperative; if we want to be relevant and call ourselves the student union for the University, we’ve got to dramatically increase the square footage. If that becomes a capital priority, we could really change the co-curricular experience for students here.”
According to Lisa Anderson, director of facilities for Student and Campus Life, a major study of the building is being planned over the next five years, to explore how best to enlarge and modernize the Straight while retaining its historic character. She points out that one of the enduring challenges of caring for a building like the Straight is maintaining and restoring the work of its original artisans, from the many intricate woodcarvings to the murals that grace both the main lobby and the Cornell Cinema auditorium. “We’re having a hard time locating folks that can do that work,” Anderson says, “and it’s very expensive.”
The lobby murals, painted starting in spring 1926, are a nod to the building’s namesake. As a placard reads, the images “reflect [Straight’s] diplomatic and business career in China, his broad interests in the arts, and his overall enthusiasm for life.” The artist, Ezra Winter, was a prominent muralist whose works grace Rockefeller Center and the Library of Congress. Using paint that included whey from the University dairy herd, he created scenes representing such human virtues as chivalry, adventure, diplomacy, creativity, and optimism. “Face the front entrance and look for the Latin words from Terence encased in a holly wreath: ‘HUMANI NIHIL-A-ME ALIENVM PVTO,’ ” Cofer wrote in The Straight Story. “Liberally translated it means ‘Nothing in the realm of men is alien to me,’ a fitting quotation for Willard Straight.”