ITHACA, N.Y.—For the aspiring student arriving to attend Cornell’s College of Home Economics in 1933, life was quite a bit different from what we’d see today. They’d arrive in Pa’s Model T (or Model A, if they still had money after the stock market crash) or on the train, excited to be attending the prestigious university they’d read about in books and newspapers or heard about on the radio. They’d be dressed in their finest, maybe they stopped for lunch Downtown and eyed the motor traffic coming up and down what’s now the Commons. If they knew about politics, perhaps they knew they were entering one of the most Republican counties in the state, though politics were quite different back then.

When they’d get up to East Hill, their eyes could take in their new institution in all its glory—the clock tower, the ivy-dressed bricks and stone of the Arts Quad, and finally, their destination—the new, expansive, imposing tan Classical Revival building that is now Martha Van Rensselaer (Rens-seh-lur) Hall. Martha Van Rensselaer and her colleague and housemate Flora Rose were Cornell’s first full-time women professors and co-directors of the College of Home Economics when it was chartered by New York State in 1925. Sadly, Professor Van Rensselaer never lived to see the opening of the stately building that bore her name, passing away a few months before its doors welcomed in their first students.

An aerial image of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall (center) shortly after its opening in 1933. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

A student of the times might have specialized in nutrition, textiles, child/human development, policy, design or other aspects of Van Rensselaer’s “domestic science.” A student can readily pursue those today. However, much has changed in the college and in the world around it in the nearly century of time since—for one thing, the College of Home Economics became the College of Human Ecology in 1969. The building still stands, the outside still true to its Depression-era roots, but the needs and demands of it have evolved greatly with the times. Meanwhile, what was once new and durable, became old and fragile.

Kay Obendorf is a Professor Emerita and a retired Senior Associate Dean of the college. With over 50 years of experience, she can attest to the building’s fatigued condition. “(T)he plumbers said that it was so bad they warned people not to tap with their tools because it could break the pipes. Martha Van could spew water at any moment, the electrical systems could go down at any moment, and our Facilities Manager was getting constant requests from the faculty that the communications systems were not up to date.”

If you think that sounds bad, it’s not nearly as problematic as what happened to the North addition of Martha Van Rensselaer, which was built in the late 1960s. A building survey as part of a routine renovation discovered the multi-story building was at risk of imminent, total collapse. “(T)he rebars and the reinforcement in the concrete floors were located in the wrong spots, and the floors were sagging…the floors supported zero live load. It’s good that the faculty and the students were sitting quietly instead of dancing. You’ve seen those things on the news were people are dancing and the floor falls? That could’ve happened in North Martha Van,” said Obendorf.

The entire wing was evacuated of all personnel and materials in four days in July 2001, and torn down shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, a cramped, outdated building became even more cramped.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

The College of Human Ecology fought hard for funding for renovations to 120,000 square-foot Martha Van Rensselaer Hall (MVR) and replacement space for the north addition, but as a state-supported college, it was at the mercy of the State University Construction Fund, which handles all of the SUNY system’s capital projects. They had to submit their plans and wait their turn in line for funding, 20 years from start to finish.

“Facility timelines are unlike other functional areas in an organization. When we start thinking about something, we know it’s 20-25 years out typically. I have a colleague in IT, he’s lucky if he waits until next week…it’s just a completely different trajectory. You don’t plan for six months from now. You plan for the next generation of faculty and students,” said Kristine Mahoney, Director of Facilities and Operations for the college. “There’s no extra space when you’re renovating a building. You need to be in the building occupied, compress your program into the unrenovated space, renovate/move, renovate/move, and then decompress.”

Two projects were new builds—new teaching facilities in West MVR (2002) that were already underway when North MVR was evacuated. The $77.7 million Human Ecology Building, effectively North MVR’s replacement, would finally open its doors in 2011. Animal research previously done in the MVR complex was moved to Weill Hall when that interdisciplinary building opened in 2007. As for grand old Marth Van Rensselaer itself, the work was split into three phases. The first was from about 2005-2009, the second from 2011-2014, and the third is wrapping up now. The cost of just the third phase alone was over $32 million.

As renovations go, the three phases of MVR Hall are about as thorough as one can get. Cornell bills it as a “comprehensive upgrade“, with total replacement of the building’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, and complete overhauls of its interior spaces from offices to commons spaces and stairwells. New state-of-the-art equipment like an MRI Facility for neuroimaging was incorporated into the building. The exterior was renovated with its historic integrity in mind, replacing the slate roof, masonry work, and building envelope upgrades for energy efficiency.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

“We started at the top and were planning to down horizontally, and that’s when the building told us, ‘no, no, you should phase it vertically’. One of the reasons for phasing it was funding, and another reason was to run the college while we were renovating.” said Obendorf.

“We know that because we started out doing it horizontally, and it was a disaster,” Mahoney added. “Phase one was a disaster, we were just learning the building the whole time, everything we did we were surprised and educated and so the second phase was more informed.”

“The first phase was also much more complex because we had to deliver the main distribution of all utilities systems in phase one in order to be able to maintain operation of the facility in future phases. For the middle period of time we had duplicate (utilities) systems running, the ancient system and the brand new system. Phase 3 was much simpler because we just took out whatever was left from the old and knitted up what we had been delivering all along. We started Phase 3 when we projected we would be finished, that’s how exaggerated the whole thing was,” Mahoney says with a laugh, “and then we finished in COVID.”

The building was virtually complete when COVID-19 pandemic set in last March – the opening was to be May 23rd, 2020. But as Mahoney explained. the impact of COVID wasn’t so much on the construction, though some painting and finishing materials were delayed. It was the furnishings. Furniture from Michigan’s Herman Miller Inc. was delayed months, as were custom pieces from Italy. The audiovisual (AV) equipment from Asian factories? Shut down as much as four months. “Our overall project was only extended by two months, but our furnishings are still ongoing and our AV systems are still being installed,” she said. Some new deliveries are being stored until social distancing requirements are relaxed, which the college hopes to see by fall semester.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

The renovations place a heavy emphasis on sustainability, with the first two phases LEED Gold Certified and the final phase currently in the certification process. This not only includes the energy-efficient utilities systems, but diverting waste from landfills – about 92% of building material removed in the renovation was recycled or reused. Old furniture was restored or given away in warehouse-style ReUse events.

Senior Lecturer Rhonda Gilmore was extensively involved in the renovation plans alongside Obendorf and Mahoney, and extolled the project’s sustainability efforts. “It makes for a wonderful learning opportunity for my students, because I can take them to this area and say ‘you can get LEED credits for this glass, you can get LEED credits for reusing this flooring, you can get LEED credits for the natural light coming into this space.’ I walk my students around the building to demonstrate LEED credits, and it’s a much more inspiring and meaningful way to teach it to them.”

“Early on in this process, it was not something the state was interested in funding at the time. The whole LEED system was new at the time and it seemed gimmicky. But we weren’t going for LEED for a piece of paper, we went through it to demonstrate a sustainable model and sustainable operations and we’ve remained committed to that. We’re also used as a model for base design vs. sustainable design,” said Mahoney.

Also critical to the college was keeping the building’s historic character intact. Cornell likes to say, for better or worse, it builds in the style of the times. Sometimes, that has resulted in unsympathetic renovations, shoehorning design elements into places that aren’t historically or aesthetically appropriate. The renovation team for MVR was careful to make sure that didn’t happen here.

“Fortunately this building is exquisitely designed and constructed; things like cut stonework, the brickwork, the pediment in the center of the building,” said Gilmore. “The interior, if you negate the date of the building’s construction, the style of the building, and the history with Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, you’ve really lost the soul of the building and of the college

“You see in the design, to an extent on the exterior but particularly on the interior, finishes like marble wainscoting, custom zinc-plated light fixtures in the entries, custom fixtures in the auditorium. Kristie (Mahoney) had those taken down and lovingly restored. They’ve created a wonderful laboratory for my students because it not only blends the historic period of when the building was built, but it celebrates what 1933 meant to this college and the world. If a renovation is done successfully and appropriately from a historic preservation standpoint, you trace time. You don’t obliterate time,” Gilmore added, noting that they struggled with the architects early on because they weren’t “aligned with that kind of an interior statement”.

Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

Among other architectural elements preserved are the black-and-white harlequin “checkerboard” marble tiles, the crown and chair rail molding, and wooden doors. This does not, however, mean that some features weren’t updated with modern building technology – for example, staircases that were once enclosed by masonry for fire safety are now encased in fire-rated glass.

“This idea of building community, a notion of inclusiveness and accessibility is facilitated by our stairs. Before you couldn’t navigate the floors without assistance because they aren’t level. The staircase on the east provides access to all floors and all levels, and on the west we lowered the elevator shaft to provide access to floors that hadn’t had it before. We made sexy stairs, now you want to use the stairs, they encourage movement, there’s more opportunity for incidental engagements. We enhanced the staircase landings to allow people to pause in their conveyance and have those moments in engagement and community building,” said Mahoney.

With updated digs, the College of Human Ecology is physically ready to face the 2020s and beyond. Now the question is, is the college ready socially and programmatically for an ever-changing world, far different than the one when MVR Hall opened in 1933? Obendorf stressed the college is ready through strategic planning, faculty recruitment and teamwork among faculty, staff and students. Gilmore’s take was more personal.

“I’ve taught here since 1994. I would say that in the DNA of almost every student I’ve worked with is a mission to be helpful to people. They come to HumEc because they will learn about the human condition here and how they can use design to help the human condition. Students are empathic. Even the Millennials, I wasn’t sure about them at first, but they have that ethos about the human condition. The faculty are really nice people, it’s a very caring community.”

“It’s about being authentic to your values as an organization. Martha and Flora conceived of this college. We’re still that college today, with those explorations and connections to the community. I don’t think we’ve shed our past, we’re still committed to our principles,” said Mahoney.

Obendorf said she’d enjoy the opportunity to take the college’s original professors for a tour today. “I’d want them to see the (college) commons filled with the students. I’d want them to see down in the shop the computer-aided design and manufacturing, I’d want them to see the MRI. The innovative classroom in action. The energy and innovation of our students would be right at the top, along with new hires and younger faculty. I think we’d have a good tour.”

Brian Crandall

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