The Cornell Store

23 02 2011

So, this entry is a little different from the norm because normally, I cite several outside sources to try and put together something coherent enough to pass as a blog entry. But this post is a little different, because most of it will be anecdotal. I worked at the store from the start of my third week of Cornell up to the Wednesday of senior week, including full time for at least one summer. So I learned a lot about the place (plus, I think I was the highest paid student employee by the time I left, so my wallet was happy). Plus, one of my favorite things to do on break was to smuggle a book about some random Cornelliana upstairs to the breakroom, so in a way, my job encouraged this blog.

Obviously, I’ve graduated and moved on. Rule of thumb was (probably still is), if you want to keep your job, don’t write anything about the store. Hence, I made the store conspicuously absent from my posts, even when I was sorely, terribly tempted to do otherwise. Which played out quite fortuitously on one occasion.

So, over at Fast Lane, Elie Bilmes, for all of his wonderful posts, managed to rub me the wrong way when he posted an entry casting suspicion about the store’s $100 gift card giveaway. It hit a sour note because over the years we had repeatedly been accused and verbally attacked by customers who thought we were stealing their information and tracking them, such that a couple of my coworkers were driven to tears. We actually had a professor taken from the store by CUPD in my first year because he struck an employee who he thought was stealing his identity by swiping his ID card.  Anyways, the $100 gift card giveaway wasn’t fake. We kept a list of the winners (a book of sheets containing name, ID#, student/faculty/staff, date won, claimed, and the cashier who made the sale [cashiers get $5 bonuses if one of their customers wins – an incentive for them to ask for the ID card]) in the back of store services, the department I worked in. I thought of posting something, but I knew I wasn’t willing to take that risk of getting in trouble with my employer. Seeing the questions still on the entry, I’ll address them now – no, you technically don’t have to buy something to enter your ID, but the ID has to be swiped in to say you were in the store that day (online orders don’t count). But we would think you’re a really big dork if you just came in for the sake of getting your card swiped. There was a winner every day the store was open, and for a while we did publish the winners on large tablet sheets which were placed on the structural columns. I guess no one noticed.

Anyways, it happened to be a couple of days after the post when I was working on a Saturday, and who should come up to the counter but Elie Bilmes. I think, for the record, this is the only time I ever met Elie, and I didn’t even introduce myself. I rang him up and then told him that I saw his entry, and I could show him the proof that we have winners. He politely declined. But I went to the back anyway, pulled out the clipboard of sheets and, from across the service area, offered him a closer look if he thought it was fake. Shortly after, the update was posted to the entry. Anyways, if I still worked there, admitting I did that could possibly have been enough to get me fired for a breach of privacy or something. Not a risk I was willing to take, so I’m only sharing it now. Sorry Elie, I wasn’t trying to be an ass, but I probably came across that way.

Which, I’ll admit that near the end of my four years, I wasn’t very lovable. I was very capable, no denying that. But I learned that the more I was paid, the bigger the amount of BS that seemed to come my way. And as my older coworkers graduated, the younger ones looked to me as the next step in the hierarchy. Especially on weekends, when we had no full timers. I think my tipping one was the occasion an architect berated me for not having Rockite in stock and calling me cheap hired help, not even realizing I was a student too. The damnedest thing about that was that there was an architect who used to come in, buy over a hundred pounds of Rockite, and sell it over at Rand for a profit. Yes, the architects had a black market.  I couldn’t decline selling Rockite because someone was “buying too much”.

The store had about $21,200,000 in total revenue in 2008. I remember this on a stakeholder packet that had been printed up sometime early in my senior year. However, after expenditures, our profit was an almighty $200,000, roughly. The store was majority-owned by CBS – Cornell Business Services, so profits went into university operations. We made virtually no profit selling textbooks. What money we did make came from novelty item sales – clothing, candies, mugs and the like. The store had about 40 full time staff, plus a few more at the warehouse on Palm Road, and about 50 part-time students interspersed through the departments. Some students worked only 7 or 8 hours, others like myself fell more towards the upper end of 13-15. The Statler Hotel gift shop and Sage print shop generated a grand total of 2.5 jobs, and the gift shop operated at a loss. It was only kept open because the hotel needed it for its three-star classification. I didn’t mind covering the Statler. Even though I had to wear shirt and tie, it was so slow I could do homework there. Plus I got to meet Robert and Helen Appel, namesakes of Appel Commons.

While I worked there, Cornell stopped doing long-term maintenance on some of the mechanicals because they planned to close the store down within the next five to seven years and demolish the structure, which of course caught my interest. The store mulled over moving to a space in Collegetown or to a location halfway between the Arts Quad and the Vet School, a proposal that as a far as I know is still on the table, albeit mothballed due to the Great Recession. Still, I don’t expect the current ca.1970, 33,000 sq ft structure to be around way too much longer (only about 22,000 sq ft is selling space). Which is a win for aesthetics, but it will be a loss for my nostalgia and for many of my memories. I used to joke that working at the store kept my sanity and reminded me why I was in college. But given some of the more frustrating times, there was a little more truth to that than I let on.

The Cornell University Airport

15 02 2011

It generally goes without saying that Cornell has had a dramatic impact on the way Ithaca and Tompkins County have developed over the past 150 years. In some respects, Cornell’s influence has been indirect – for example, the development of the Collegetown neighborhood to meet the desires of Cornell students, or the development of Cornell Heights and Cayuga Heights to provide faculty a leafy respite from their academic duties. In some ways, Cornell’s influence has been more direct, such as the Seneca Place building downtown or…owning the airport.

The first airport in the county was actually down where Cass Park is today. For those who live under an ivy-covered rock, Cass Park is just up Route 89 from the city, across the inlet from the Farmer’s Market:

The first airport (which the airport website claims was the second airport to be created within the state), which was called the Ithaca Municipal Airport, was built in 1912. It wasn’t much; a simple hangar and a rundown dirt strip were built initially, and the facilities were expanded somewhat by the Thomas “Aeroplane Factory” which was built next to the airport in 1914 (Turback 29). Three years later, the company merged with Morse Chain to become one of the largest employers in the county. Apart from the testing of military planes, and some leisure flights (the airport was the home base of aerial photographer and future airline pioneer Cecil Robinson), there wasn’t much in the way of air traffic.

By the 1940s, passenger planes began to catch on with (wealthy echelons of) the public, and it became clear that the municipal airport wasn’t going to cut it. For one, it was prone to fog banks from the lake and flooding – a major flood back in 1935 wiped out much of the airport. Space was inadequate, and as planes were growing in size and speed, expanding the facility was neigh near impossible because it abutted the city, the lake, and the slopes of West Hill. The farmland to the north of Cornell was recognized as the prime site for a future airport (Bishop 553), and the city of Ithaca was very interested in building a new airport on that land, but there was one very big and still relevant issue – getting taxpayers to cough over their hard-earned tax dollars to buy the land and build another airport outside of the city was nothing short of political suicide.

Enter Cornell.

Cornell, in trying to meet the needs of its elite faculty, alumni and connections, knew the importance of having a larger, modern airport. Although a bit financially strapped at the time, Cornell noticed the large number of lots being sold off to make the first suburban homesteads and sought to act before the land values could increase any further in that area. On September 9, 1944, the trustees authorized the university to seek options on the land, and within three months had obtained 1,146 acres of land at the price of about $202,000 (about $2.5 million today – a relative bargain). The purchase was strongly debated and led to some sharp criticisms of the Day administration during the 1940s (Bishop 560). The construction of the facility itself was wedged in with many of Cornell’s other post-war projects, but the need of a new airport was not nearly as acute as the need for veteran’s housing or new academic space. The airport was not completed until 1948,  and ownership was transferred to the county in 1956. In the meanwhile, there were two airports in Ithaca – the old rundown one downtown, and the new one on East Hill. The transfer of ownership may have been influenced by a shift in focus from Cornell’s aeronautical program in Ithaca to the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, which operated as a division of the university from the late 1940s to the early 1970s next to the Buffalo Airport (it was later spun off as a private enterprise called Calspan Labs that at last check operates as part of Veridian Corporation). CAL’s heyday was from about 1955-1965 — when Cornell decided that having its own airport 200 miles from its recently donated aeronautical lab wasn’t such a hot idea. But mostly, it was a matter of finance – their were issues with the local passenger airline’s use of the airport, severe enough that if one of their planes landed on Cornell’s property, the pilot would be arrested (Bishop 561). The first six months the Cornell airport was open it incurred a $103,000 loss. The University invested $300,000 to build up the property and was hardly getting any return out of it – the trustees voted to prohibit further funding to the airport in June 1949. Although relations with Robinson Airlines were patched up by 1952, the airport limped along in financial hell until Cornell finally had a decent opportunity to unload it onto Tompkins County.

The county airport has operated since, and was renovated and expanded in 1994. Robinson Airlines was renamed Mohawk Airlines in late 1952, moved to Utica six years later, and was absorbed by another company in the 1970s, which after several mergers and acquisitions, is now an ancestor of USAir. As for the old airport, it closed in the 1950s, but the main hangar was renovated in 1975 to house the  Hangar Theatre, which has seen several renovations and expansions since then.The rest of the property was absorbed into Cass Park in the 1960s.

I doubt Harvard ever owned its own airport.

News Tidbits 2/7/11: Sorority Selected for Recolonization on CU Campus

7 02 2011

According to the Cornell Daily Sun, Phi Sigma Sigma sorority has been selected to recolonize at Cornell University, from a field of five candidates. From the article:

“Phi Sigma Sigma will begin recruiting a core group of members in the fall, drawing in part from the new sorority interest group on campus. The sorority will participate in formal recruitment in Jan. 2012….

Phi Sigma Sigma had a chapter at Cornell that left the University in 1969, a departure Sanders speculated may have been due to a generally negative view of Greek life at the time. She said supportive Cornell alumnae from the chapter’s earlier years would be an asset to its reestablishment. “

That much is correct. Phi Sigma Sigma established a chapter (Beta Xi) at Cornell University around 1954. The chapter was located in the house at 313 Wait Avenue.The chapter was closed around 1969, and for that I offer two, non-mutually exclusive explanation. The first is as Ms. Sanders suggested – the late 1960s were a time of strong social activism and Greek life was seen as archaic and out of touch with the times, so membership declined rapidly. Phi Sigma Sigma was one of four or five chapters to shut down in a three year span from 1969-1971. Secondly, Phi Sigma Sigma, although officially non-sectarian, was regarded as a house for women of Jewish faith. As other sorority houses adopted non-sectarian policies in the 1960s, the competition became much fiercer, and with the general declines in sorority interest, this likely compounded and caused the chapter to close its doors.

The Sun article states that 14 South Ave. is expected to be used as the new house for the sorority at Cornell. This house has been used for so many Greek houses it’s like a token minority character in a movie – no one can remember their name, but everyone remembers their race or skin color. In this case, no one can remember the house’s letters, they just know it’s a Greek house. For the record, the house was built in 1957, and home to Kappa Alpha Society up to their closing in 1990, and then it was home to AOPi and Delta Chi. This is discussed more in another entry on this blog.

Among the nifty things that turned up in a google search is a word document from the ladies of Phi Sigma Sigma national that seems to be an overview of their presentation to the Cornell Panhel on why they would make for a good addition to the campus Greek scene. It doesn’t really offer much in the way of interesting information, but I was rather surprised it was so easy to find on the Internet.

So yeah, congratulations ladies. Good luck to your rechartering in the upcoming year.

The Urban “Renewal” of Ithaca

1 02 2011

So, the Cornell Alumni Magazine latest issue caught my attention. Its feature article, “Through a Glass, Darkly“, is a feature about visiting professor Mark Iwinski’s artistic work of superimposing photographic stills of Ithaca streetlife from decades past over the contemporary appearance of those locations today. Which, falling in line with my addiction to interest in local architecture in a historical context, was a worthy read.

The most obvious thought after reading it is that history has not been kind to Ithaca. It hasn’t been kind to the downtowns of many older cities and towns in the Northeast. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, “urban renewal” basically consisted of trying to suburbanize downtowns by tearing down underused structures, often pinning their hopes on one or two big projects. An example of its effects can be seen whenever you drive through I-81 in Syracuse –  in 1957, Syracuse’s primary African-American neighborhood (the 15th ward) was town down to make way for the interstate, which effectively cut off Syracuse University from downtown and contributed to the emptying out of that city.

Image property of

As the article mentioned, Ithaca fared better than its peers. First of all, in 1968, Route 13 was supposed to become a limited-access highway connection from Horseheads, through Ithaca and to I-81 in Cortland. However, the project lost state and local support, and the only portion completed was the three-mile section that leads north out of Ithaca to just past the Cornell Business Park in Lansing. So there weren’t large expressways bisecting the city.

Secondly, although Ithaca was fairly rundown by the 1970s, the preservationist movement also started to gain momentum around that time by saving the Dewitt Mall (the old high school) and the Clinton House from demolition. In a way, it could be said that when the Cornell Public Library was torn down in 1959, and gas stations started replacing Victorian homes near downtown, that the Ithaca preservationist movement was really born. However, as the article shows, not every structure could be saved; the Colonial old city hall was torn down around 1970 to make room for the Seneca Street parking garage. The original Hotel Ithaca, which dated from 1871, was torn down 95 years later and eventually replaced by the Rothschild’s Building, which in an ironic twist of fate the building was vacated by its primary occupant because they complained it was too old and inefficient. The Rothschild’s Building is slated to be renovated into residential units.

So Ithaca has a relatively intact downtown thanks to early preservation efforts, and with further redevelopment and infill, the city has enjoyed a better aesthetic appearance than most of its regional peers. For the record, although I am strongly pro-development, I don’t think preservation is a bad thing. It has its merit and each case has to be considered in all its pros and cons on an individual basis.

On a final note, progressive and meticulous Cornell is by no means an innocent party. Back in the 1990s, the university and the town of Ithaca engaged in several contentious meetings because the university was seeking to expand north campus with the Residential Initiative in the late 1990s. The decision in itself wasn’t a problem, but the decision to tear down one of the oldest farmhouses in the county was. Eventually, a deal was worked out where the Cornell and the NPO Historic Ithaca would have the building, known as the Cradit-Moore house, trucked up Pleasant Grove Road .3 miles (in one piece no less) and built onto a new foundation. Cornell wrote off the moving cost and Historic Ithaca sold the house to a private owner to write off the costs of building a new foundation. In case you were wondering, this is how  “Cradit Farm Road” on North Campus received its name.

The article was a good read, I enjoyed it immensely. It reminds me that while we continue to develop new assets, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye and wantonly demolish what we already have. Otherwise, it might be as empty as the lots behind Dr. Iwanski’s photographic stills.