The Essentials of Campus II

14 05 2009


I knew that sooner or later, I would have to cover what is perhaps the most iconic building on campus. So here we are.

All citations, unless otherwise noted, are from Morris Bishop’s A History of Cornell (Cornell University Press, 1962).

Prior to renovation in the 1960s, the building was simply known as “The University Library”, even as other libraries were built across campus. It was Andrew Dickson White’s belief that “A large library is absolutely necessary to the efficiency of the various departments. Without it, our men of the highest ability will be frequently plodding into old circles and stumbling into old errors.” (77) The library was appropriated in September 1867 to the tune of $7,500 (175).  The amount was up to $20,000 by 1880 (213).

Daniel Willard Fiske was appointed the first librarian. He was also head of the university press and an instructor in German, Swedish and Icelandic. It was his belief (and rather progressive for the time) that the library should be a reference library, open to enhance both faculty studies and student interests. As a result, his goals was to obtain, by purchase or gift, extensive book collections, such as the library of Goldwin Smith (6,000 books), Charles Anthon (3400 books) and the like. A.D. White was also known for buying rare books on his overseas trips (both with his own funds and with university money). As a result, by 1873, there were 34,000 books and 8,000 pamphlets in the libe—a substantial figure for an American university. When it first opened, the library boasted that it was open longer than any other U.S. university — nine hours a day.  (108)

Fiske himself was easy to irritate and known for holding deep grudges from insults or perceived slights. Because the first university Vice-President William Russel was known for a gift of mockery, the two absolutely despised each other.  However Fiske was also very kind and generous; he was particularly fond of the Psi Upsilon fraternity men, and was once chastised by White for giving an inordinate portion of his salary to the chapter and its needy brothers (108). He also was chastised for offering a glass of ale to a student, to which he responded that the student interrupted him in his drinking time with a friend, and he felt obliged to offer a glass (108).

Since Fiske was in Egypt when the university opened in October 1868, the actual first librarian was a prominent local lawyer, Thomas Frederick “Teefy” Crane, of “Give My Regards to Davy” fame. Crane studied languages in his private time, and as a result he also was the German instructor at opening.  Crane enjoyed the experience enough that he himself went abroad, came back and switched places with another professor to become the instructor of French, Spanish and Italian in 1870. (109)

So, now we get to the “Great Will Case”. Jennie McGraw, aged 37, received a large inheritance after her father’s death in 1877. Already battling tuberculosis, a number of men offered to marry her, some of which were gold diggers I’m sure. One of the men who courted her was Willard Fiske. He wrote love poems to her, but he never showed them for fear of being called out as a gold digger. Anyways, as the rich and bored are wont to do, McGraw arranged to have a fabulous house built off of University Avenue, bordering Fall Creek, and then bought thousands of dollard of furnishing for it (224). In the meanwhile, both McGraw and Fiske went abroad to different parts of Europe in 1879. There is no record of contact in Europe between the two prior to April 1880. During this time however, Fiske used his influence on A.D. White to work over affairs back at Cornell. Locals assumes that because White was known to have lent Fiske money, and the two were close, that he and Sage were buttering him up so that if he and Jennie were to get hitched, that her fortune would be given someday to Cornell. (225).

In April 1880, Fiske went to Rome to join Jennie, now invalid and near death. The courtship between 48-year-old Fiske and the dying 40-year-old McGaw was short. They became engaged in Venice. Fiske announced it in a letter in May 1880 to A.D. White (along with a request for money). As one can imagine, some people looked upon Fiske’s behavior as mercenary. The two were married in Berlin on July 14, 1880 (226). At the time, Fiske signed a letter giving up his rights to Jennie’s property, under Prussian law.

The two spent the winter on the Nile, and then returned to Europe. By June 1881, the two were informed in Paris that Jennie had only a few weeks to live. Her dying wish was to pass on in Ithaca, so they made the trip back by September. I know, more than a few weeks, but whatever. She saw her mansion, newly built, and said (as she was propped up from her pillows) “it surpasses all my expectations”. It was the only time she ever saw the mansion, as she died September 30, 1881. When she died, Judge Boardman (of Boardman Hall) asked for the will. No one could find it, which would really suck for all parties because then they would have to use John McGraw’s will, and then the inheritance would go to John McGraw’s brother and his five kids since Jennie had no hubby or progeny.  Luckily, they found it in a secret pocket in a handbag that had been dumped off as junk in Fiske’s attic (227).


The will stated that Fiske would get $300,000, $550,000 to her uncle and his kids, and $200,000 for a library at Cornell, $50,000 for McGraw Hall improvements, and $40,000 for a university hospital. The university also gained her land estate, including the mansion (valued at $600,000+), which A.D. White thought would be a dream home for an art gallery (227). Fiske, as custodian of the mansion, was to continue to occupy the house, and this raised issues. Namely, that he was known for being very needy financially; he offended Henry Sage by having parties in the room she died in no more than two months after her death; and Boardman simply didn’t like him, perhaps because of a rumor that Fiske suffered from marital indiscretions while in Europe. (228).

Here’s where the real fun begins. In May 1882, the state changed Cornell’s charter a little bit, but in one embedded section, it removed a portion detailing that the university couldn’t receive or hold personal property equal to or more than $3 million dollars. This was very convenient. In June 1883, Fiske was about to settle his affairs by going abroad, when an apprentice lawyer in Elmira told him of the change, and that state law said that a wife can’t leave more than half of her property to charity. As you might guess, the sh*t hit the fan. (228).

So, we have two lawsuits, one to break the will by Fiske on the grounds of Cornell’s underhanded actions, and then another one by Jennie’s cousins, out for more of the fortune. Fiske sailed for Europe, leaving a surrogate to handle things (Judge Marcus Lyon). White sailed after him to beg him to reconsider, but then Sage cabled White to tell him he was to make no offer to Fiske. Most of the Ithaca and Cornell crowd hated Fiske now anyway. After much media attention (like an OJ Simpson trial for the 1880s), in May 1886, the ruling was in favor of Cornell. White wanted to let Fiske save face by offering concessions; Sage would hear none of it. Fiske appealed the judgment, and it was overturned in August 1887, so Fiske won the suit, and the McGraws won theirs. So Cornell appealed to the Supreme Court (231). Meanwhile, the friendship between White and Boardman/Sage had deteriorated to animosity, although Sage made an offer to build a library himself if they failed to get the inheritance. All the while, Fiske was living in a luxurious Italian villa.

In May 1890, the Supreme Court ruled against the university. However, they did say that Cornell’s endowment could be used for any university purpose, which was a small consolation. in the end, Cornell paid $180,000 in legal fees to David Hill, the apprentice lawyer of Elmira, and $100,000 for the McGraws’ counsel. One of Jennie’s cousins bought the mansion for $35,000, much to White’s anger. The house was sold by the McGraws to Chi Psi fraternity in 1896. Its furniture was auctioned off, mostly purchased by the other McGraws. Fiske’s lawyer never took another case—it was rumored he drank himself to death during the celebration (232).  Henry Sage donated $500,000 for the library to be built, as was done in 1891. Willard Fiske returned to hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and book collecting. When he passed in 1904, he donated his library as well as his estate to the university. He also requested to be buried with his wife in the mortuary of Sage Chapel; when the university granted the request, the Sage family severed all ties to Cornell.  (232).



Long-winded, isn’t it? Well, I’ll go on for a just a little while longer. I have to make up for some lost time.

The actual cost of the libe was $227,000, with room for 400,000 volumes (Cornell owned about a quarter if that at the time) (271).  When received ,the Fiske fund was used for salaries and upkeep, and later book expenses; the library was already overcrowded by 1906. The library expanded in 1936 with the construction of more stacks on the south and west wings. The Great Depression was quite hard on the libe, and the head librarian at the time, Dr. Otto Kinkeldey, frequently complained about the lack of space and funding.  A special library fund would be set up in 1941 (531).  The library was internally reorganized in the late 1940s (576), and the Cornell University archives were created about the same time (600).

The library was renamed for Harold Uris ’25 in 1962, since he donated significant amounts to its renovation. In 1982, the glassy west wing was added, adding 214 seats , and was paid for my the Uris Brothers Foundation [1]. The 173-ft tall Library Tower was renamed “McGraw Tower” for Jennie McGraw in 1962.

As for the Chimes and more details about the tower, we’ll save that for another entry. For the Clocktower Pumpkin, we’ll leave that to a wikipedia quote:

“On October 8, 1997 a pumpkin appeared atop the spire of McGraw Tower. Because of the danger involved in retrieving it, administrators decided to leave it until it rotted and fell off. However, the pumpkin rapidly dried out in the cold air and remained on the tower until it was removed with a crane on March 13, 1998 (it was planned that Provost Don M. Randel would remove it, but in a practice run the crane basket was blown by a gust of wind and knocked the pumpkin off). Some people had claimed that a real pumpkin could not stay up that long without rotting and that it must be artificial. However, subsequent morphological, chemical, and DNA analysis by both faculty members and undergraduates confirmed that it was indeed a pumpkin.

In April 2005, a disco ball was attached to the top of the tower. A crane was hired to remove the offending orb in an operation which cost the university approximately $20,000.” [2]





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