North by Northwest of Campus

12 08 2008

The house of the Chi Psi fraternity of Cornell University. Chi Psi has had a colorful if traumatic history in its century-plus long history here at Cornell. The Chapter at Cornell was founded in 1869. While they lived elsewhere, Jennie McGraw, the daughter of John McGraw, who was a wealthy lumber merchant and one of the first trustees of Cornell (for whom McGraw Hall is named) [1], fell in love with the first university librarian, Daniel Willard Fiske. She was old for loving at the time, pushing forty. She was also suffering from terminal tuberculosis. Regardless, she and Willard eloped and engaged in a whirlwind tour of Europe, while an opulent mansion was built on the edge of the gorge. She lived just long enough to see it with her own eyes, passing as they arrived home in 1881 [2]. Willard moved in, but his behavior was considered a little too exuberant for someone whose wife just died. Plus, due to some legal issues with Jennie’s will (which might make for a good entry another day), he and Cornell ended up on really bad terms, and he spent most of the rest of his life in Italy (on the bright side, he somewhat reconciled with Cornell in later years and donated his library upon his death in 1904 [3]).

That story is tangent to Chi Psi. Willard sold the opulent McGraw-Fiske mansion to the fraternity around 1881[4]. It was during the cold night of December 6th 1906 that the second deadliest campus tragedy in Cornell’s history occurred.

Sources tend to indicate it was caused by flammable polish being used on the floors. Others have gone as far to suggest that the house was cursed due to Jenny and Willard’s indiscretions. Regardless, the house caught fire. And in the days before real fire engines, any water to be used on the house (that wasn’t frozen) was a mere trickle. Of the twenty-six fraternity brothers living in the house, four died. When one of the exterior stone walls collapsed, it landed on volunteer firemen from the city of Ithaca, killing three of them. By the end of the night, the house was destroyed, and seven people were dead [5].

Photo Courtesy of "Greetings from Ithaca"

Photo Courtesy of “Greetings from Ithaca”

Through the tragedy, the fraternity persevered. They built the current house the following year (known as “The Lodge”), and have lived there since.

So, I took two photos partially to get a good idea of the shape and ornamentation of the house, but more because a woman in a towel came up from the gorge as I was taking photos…and I didn’t want to give the wrong idea. I ran south after a large guy appeared by her side, and she probably thinks I’m a creeper and pervert. I prefer photos of ornamental busts to women’s busts.


The Thurston Court Apartments is a 22-person university-owned apartment building with one and two-bedroom student apartments [6]. Primarily used for grad housing, in recent years the building has been opened up to undergrads as well. The building was built in 1932 (fun fact: the entire building was once painted white, including the ornamentation).

The house of Seal and Serpent fraternity, Cornell’s independent fraternity. The fraternity was founded in 1905, and the current house was built in 1929 in the Tudor Style [7]. In the past several years, the fraternity has suffered from a chronic shortage of interest; rumor mill says they only had three pledges last spring.

Maybe this has something to do with it:

“…Fraternities have a reason to fear such stereotyping. The Seal and Serpent society, a house which was primarily gay in the 1980s but now has just two gay brothers out of 16, has had some difficulty overcoming “the gay” label during rush…”

I s’pose this doesn’t help – I still hear this from a lot of people both in and out of the Greek community  (the quote is from a Nov. 2000 Sun article).  Going through this blog’s search bar history, there are over 200 hits for “gay fraternity”.  I’m willing to bet it’s not with good intention.


The house of Alpha Phi sorority. Alpha Phi Cornell was founded in 1889 with assistance from the Alpha Chapter at Syracuse University [8]. Originally based out of Sage College, they lived with Alpha Zeta for a year  and on their own in a couple different houses until they bought their current house from an Alpha Phi alum in 1921. The side wings were added in 1937, and a back wing (not pictured) was added in 1961. The chapter went under a reorganization sometime in the early 1990s due to low membership intake, but I’ve found nothing that indicates it ever closed. Currently, Alpha Phi has one of the highest sorority membership numbers at Cornell.

Hardly 500 feet away is the house of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. I know Kappa has been in the news lately; and it really sucks to be them right now (unless you like embarrassment over attention). The sorority’s Cornell (Psi) chapter was founded in 1883, and moved into the current house in 1921 [9]. The chapter was inactive from 1969 to 1977, a time period well-known for its anti-Greek sentiment.

Louie’s Lunch was founded in around 1918 by Louie Zounakos, who emigrated to NYC from Greece, and later moved up to Ithaca. The original Louie operated the truck up until 1955 [10]. The original truck was replaced in the late 1940s. The truck was then owned by the Machen family until 1997, and is now currently operated by Ron Beck. I do have a preference to one truck over the other, but I won’t say which.


Photo courtesy of “Greetings from Ithaca”

The house of Zeta Psi fraternity. The house, built in 1930, was originally that of Theta Xi. Zeta Psi, meanwhile, has the distinction of being the first fraternity founded by Cornell, even if it was decided by a coin flip (see the entry for Chi Phi). The chapter built a luxurious house in 1891 on the corner of Williams Street and Stewart Avenue, but moved out in the 1940s due to low numbers as brothers left to go fight in WWII. The original house burnt down in the late 1940s, and was replaced by a parking lot. In the meanwhile, Zeta Psi lived with Young Israel for a short while before moving into 660 Stewart Avenue in the late 1950s. A donation from a wealthy alumnus allowed them to buy the current house in 1972 [11].





[4] ***

***Page 10 has a picture of the McGraw estate in its heyday











One response

30 07 2014
That Time Someone Wanted a 10-Story Building on Stewart Avenue | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] The site was home to luxurious house belonging to Zeta Psi until WWII; after they moved out, it burnt down a few years later, and the site was reclaimed as it is now – a parking lot used by […]

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