Essentials of Campus III: Willard Straight Hall

1 10 2009


It’ a a blessing and a curse to have posted mostly news tidbits lately. It saves time for me while it still is pertinent to the general focus of this blog, but posting them feels relatively unsatisfying, especially when I’m comparing them to some of my history entries, like the “Essentials of Campus” entries. I have been planning to do Willard Straight in an entry since about May; the trick was finding the time and resources to do it right. For one, I didn’t have enough photos of the Straight, so I decided to go on a little photo tour of the inside of the building. Secondly, I had debated to what extent I would cover the Willard Straight takeover back in spring 1969. I came to the conclusion that I’ll provide links and brief description of that piece of history, but since there are entire books dedicated to it (which thanks to the wonders of Google, much of Donald A. Down’s meticulously detailed book concerning the crisis can be read online), I decided to not spend too much time on it for the time being.


So, let’s start with the man. Willard Dickerman Straight, originally an orphan from Oswego, NY, was a member of the class of 1901 (Bishop 455). During his time at Cornell, he was an editor for the Cornell Widow, which was a popular campus humor magazine at that time, and he was one of the students responsible for organizing Spring Day, which would evolve into Slope Day in later decades. He was also a member of Delta Tau Delta and the Sphinx Head Honor Society. After graduation, he worked in the Chinese customs service (a time when the Qing Dynasty still ruled in China and Anti-Western sentiment ran high) and rose rapidly in his field to become the head of the State Department’s Far Eastern Affairs. He married Dorothy Payne Whitney, member of the incredibly WASPy and wealthy Whitney family.  Willard Straight passed away from complications due to Spanish Flu strain pneumonia on December 1, 1918, while waiting for the Americans to arrive in Paris to negotiate WWI peace treaties. His will asked his wife to do “such thing or things for Cornell University as she may think most fitting and useful to make the same a more human place.” While I have little idea what “make the same” means, it was part of his will to use his money to enhance the quality of life at Cornell. Generally, that was the sentiment he held during his life too; he was one of the financiers for Schoellkopf Field.

Digressing here, but Striaght had three kids: A chairman for Rolls-Royce, an actress, and a KGB spy. None of them went to Cornell.


Thing was, back in the day, fraternities were the entire social scene at Cornell. If you weren’t a member of a house, you didn’t exist. There were few clubs, and intercollegiate sports were a diversion for precious few. In that time, if you were an independent student, you probably lived in a crappy tenement in Collegetown of further down East Hill and you led a miserable existence hating the weather and not enjoying the collegiate experience. One can see where Willard Straight was coming from when he said that the place needed to become a little more human.


Well, Mrs. Straight didn’t know what to use the money on, so she kinda sat on it for a few years figuring out what would be the best way to fulfill her late husband’s wishes. Enter Leonard K. Elmhirst ’21. A charming englishman and president of the Cornell Cosmopolitan Club (the club [in the sense that coops and frats are clubs] for international students at the time), and when he discovered that his club was $80,000 short of funds (which is like $830,000 in today’s terms; one has to wonder how the hell you get so far in the hole without someone catching it).  Like any proactive student, he went on down to NYC to plead with alumni for money. One of those who pitched his plea to was widow Straight. Well, she was taken by his image of barren student life at Cornell, so she paid off the debt for the club, resolved to donate the money to better student life, and married Mr. Elmhirst. Now that’s a package deal if I ever saw one. Mrs. Elmhirst became a citizen of the crown in 1938, and passed away in December . Considering what happened the following spring, that may have been for the best.


Through consultation with President Farrand, Mrs. Elmhirst came up with the idea of a student union, which was an increasingly popular idea in those days, conjuring images of the schools of Europe while also improving the quality of student life. William Adams Delano drew up the plans and they were presented to the trustees in June 1922 (Bishop 456). The plans called for meeting halls, banquet halls, dance halls, a library, formal dining rooms and a cafeteria, a thatre, guest bedrooms, dorms, campus offices, game rooms, all in one grand Collegiate Gothic package built with the finest craftsmanship and llenroc bluestone. Ezra Winter painted the murals in the grand hall, meant to illustrate Striaght’s life and career (this is why you can see Manchus above the door of the reading room today). The building opened November 25,1925, though to comparatively low-key fanfare (though perhaps I may be comparing this to the dancers dressed up as scientists dancing in the atrium to “Weill Thing” when they dedicating Weill Hall). Mrs. Straight, now Elmhirst, was the first to dine in the cafeteria and the first person to stay in the hotel that existed on the upper floors. The hotel remained on the upper floors until it was closed as a result of the April 1969 crisis. At one time, the building was also home to WVBR, a barbershop, a store to buy your booze, and people actually utilized the different entrances for men and women instead of just walking to the doors that are closest.


So…about that crisis. If I sum it up in a paragraph, that would be doing the event, the actions leading up to it, and those involved a great injustice, and as I mentioned, there are far better resources for reading up on the takeover of the Straight than this blog entry. On April 19, 1969, a series of events with regards to racial discrimination on campus led to a takeover of the student union during Parent’s Weekend. All guests and staff were forced out of the building, and several African-American studies held up in the building as other students groups tried to remove them by force, leading some of the students participating in the takeover to smuggle guns into building. After negotiating with the university vice-president, the students left the building, guns in hand, immortalized by a now famous Pulitzer-Prise winning photo by Steve Starr. The event was a public relations disaster for the university, and led President James Perkins to resign his position with disgrace. The event also led to the formation of the Africana Studies and Research Center, and Ujamaa three years later.


Today, the Straight is home to the Ivy Room and Oakenshield’s dining facilities, the Cornell Cinema (which replaced the theatre after 1988), the browsing library, lounge areas, various student office and mailboxes for campus orgs, the Dean of Students and Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs. The new Asian Student Center has also been set up in the building until the budget allows for them to move to 14 South Ave.


EDIT: So WordPress hates large photos. It says “Treat all women with chivalry** The respect of your fellows is worth more than applause** Understand and sympathise with those who are less fortunate than you are ** Make up your own mind but respect the opinions of others ** Don’t think a thing right or wrong just because someone tells you so ** Think it out yourself, guided by the advice of those whome you respect ** Hold your head high and your mind open, you can always learn ** Extracts from Willard Straight’s letter to his son





4 responses

1 10 2009

i always thought the cinema and outer portion of Oakenshields (and the terrace above) were an addition to the original structure, since their are inside windows and stone walls in Oakenshields, suggesting this. Was that just by design?

1 10 2009
B. C.

From what I’ve found, the theatre wasn’t an addition, but Oakenshield’s was made out of terrace area of the original building. It became enclosed in 1943 to serve as an army mess hall during the days off WWII, and later became Oakenshield’s. A new terrace area was constructed as a result.


3 10 2009

On a random note, while the hotel was closed, there were two guest rooms that anyone could stay in directly below the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, although I believe the numbers guest rooms has now been dropped to one.

12 11 2010
Lawrence Frank

“His will asked his wife to do “such thing or things for Cornell University as she may think most fitting and useful to make the same a more human place.” While I have little idea what “make the same” means, it was part of his will to use his money to enhance the quality of life at Cornell.”

FYI: “make the same” means “make Cornell University.” That is, “the same” refers to Cornell University, mentioned earlier in the sentence, and functions to avoid sounding repetitive by saying “Cornell University” twice in the same sentence.

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