balch hall

ITHACA, N.Y. — As Cornell’s new North Campus dormitories take shape, the next phases of its North Campus Residential Initiative are becoming more clear; next on the to-do list, an extensive renovation of Balch Hall.

The 167,000 square-foot Collegiate Gothic dorm at 600 Thurston Avenue is the last all-female freshmen residence maintained by the university. Completed in 1929, Balch Hall serves as a visual focal point for those passing over the Thurston Avenue bridge. Its ivy-covered stone walls and mullioned windows have provided a proper thematic backdrop for countless Cornell photos, and its famed central archway has served as the makeshift stage for hundreds of decent if slightly off-key acapella performances.

Photo by Brian Crandall.

However, as with many of Cornell’s older dormitories, deferred maintenance has been a concern. Some features, like the ancient wrought-iron closet racks to store fancy hats, have a quaint old-fashioned charm. Leaks, outdated utilities and physical impediments for handicapped students and visitors are not so charming.

Cornell is aware of this. While most of the attention to their North Campus redevelopment has been on the new structures and 2,000 new beds, the plan also calls for renovations to several existing buildings. As soon as the first phase of the brand new dormitories are ready for occupancy, Cornell plans to begin renovating its older residences, with Balch Hall being first on the list.

According to Site Plan Review documents filed with the city, the “full-gut renovation” includes replacing all the windows, replacing and rebuilding some gutters and non-structural exterior walls, general masonry repair new accessible walkways, landscaping and lighting improvements. On the inside would be four new elevators and modernized mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems. The interior reconfiguration would increase Balch’s student capacity from 436 to 470 beds, and the university hopes to obtain LEED Gold certification with the improvements in energy efficiency.

For those concerned about Balch’s collegiate charm, visually the exterior changes will be fairly minor. Since Balch Hall is visible from the Arts Quad Historic District, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission will weigh in, though only in an advisory role. The new elevators will result in four new dormers designed to match the rest of the building. The new handicap-accessible path will result in the removal of four mature trees. The Balch arch stairs and other exterior stairways will be rebuilt with similar materials as before.

Image courtesy of Goody Clancy Architects.

Assuming all goes to plan, the renovated Balch, which will remain an all-female dorm, would be ready to welcome freshmen again in August 2022, as the renovation work shifts to other existing North Campus dorms (Clara Dickson Hall).

Goody Clancy Architects of Boston is in charge of design work, with local firm T.G. Miller providing the civil engineering work, and Cornell favorite Thornton Tomasetti of New York on tap as sustainable design consultant. IBI Placemarking of Boston will be the landscape architect.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.