Willard Straight Hall

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Cornell University
Willard Straight Hall
Straight Hall
Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University.jpg
Alternative names"The Straight"
General information
TypeStudent union
Architectural styleCollege Gothic
LocationIthaca, New York, USA
AddressHo Plaza
OwnerCornell University
Design and construction
ArchitectWilliam Adams Delano

Willard Straight Hall is the student union building on the central campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. It is located on Campus Road, adjacent to the Ho Plaza and Cornell Health.


The construction of Willard Straight Hall was initiated by Willard Dickerman Straight's widow, Dorothy Payne Whitney, as a memorial to her husband. The building was intended to lead to "the enrichment of the human contacts of student life", according to the speech Straight gave at the dedication of the hall.[citation needed] Cornell historian Corey Earle notes that in the era Willard Straight Hall was constructed, "it was unusual to have a building with no academic purpose".[1] The concept of a "student union" building was a recent invention at the time—the first student union in North America, Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, had opened in 1896. When Willard Straight Hall opened its doors in 1925, it was still one of only a few such structures in the country dedicated to student life. However, Cornell provided on-campus space for student organizations since its earliest days. In January 1870, Andrew Dickson White allocated a large room in the middle section of White Hall to be used as a "Society Hall." White donated $1,000 to furnish it subject to $300 in matching gifts from student organizations.[2] Later, Barnes Hall was built to house the Students’ Christian Association in 1888.

Western facade on Libe Slope

In 1918, recently widowed, Dorothy Whitney Straight met a Cornell Agriculture student, Leonard Knight Elmhirst, who persuaded her to visit the campus. Elmhirst and Straight together with certain faculty members decided that the best realization of Willard Straight's wish that some of his estate be used to make Cornell a more "human place" was to build a student union building. Elmhirst graduated from Cornell and left for India in 1921. For the next three years, Dorothy Straight oversaw planning for Willard Straight Memorial Hall, which was to be built with part of her Whitney family fortune in addition to Willard Straight's bequest. The cornerstone was laid on June 15, 1924 and the dedication ceremony was held on November 25, 1925. Elmhirst and Dorothy Straight had been married in April 1925.[3][4]

The North Lobby entrance on the eastern side of the building on Ho Plaza. This entrance was previously limited to use by men.

Leonard Elmhirst came from a land-owning family in Yorkshire, England. The seeds for his study of agriculture in Ithaca, NY and subsequent Dartington Hall School and "Institute for Rural Reconstruction' in the agriculturally impoverished England of the 1920s were sown on his first visit to India during World War I. Willard Straight Memorial Hall was designed by a noted architect of the day, William Adams Delano,[5] and constructed from the local "llenroc" bluestone, a feldspathic sandstone; the architectural model for its Gothic revival style may have been the 14th-century Dartington Hall in Devon, which the newlyweds purchased in 1925.[6][7]

From Willard Straight Hall's opening, the main desk was staffed by undergraduate students. In addition, the building's policies are set, updated, and enforced by the student-led Willard Straight Hall Board of Governors, more commonly known on campus as the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board (SUB). However, the North Entrance was at first reserved for men, with women using the entrance at the south end of the building.

Prior to 1969, the upper floors of the Straight served as a hotel for Cornell's visitors and guests. The broadcast studios of the WVBR Radio station were in a lower level. The building also housed the University Theatre, where until 1988 the Cornell Dramatic Club (formed in 1925 from the merger of the Dramatic Club and the Women’s Dramatic Club) staged almost 50 performances a year.[5]

As Cornell built more dormitories on the West Campus and the North Campus, two additional buildings supplemented the Straight to serve students: Noyes Center on West Campus and the North Campus Union (now Robert Purcell Community Center) on North Campus. The combined operation constituted the Department of University Unions. In 1970, with the advent of the University Senate, University Unions became a part of the new Division of Campus Life. In order to end duplication and tensions between the University Unions and the Dean of Students Office, University Unions merged into the latter Department.

1969 building takeover[edit]

Willard Straight Hall and Ho Plaza as seen from McGraw Tower

In the 1968–69 school year, the university judicial system was the center of a controversy in connection with the disciplining of African-American students who had engaged in a protest. It was also directly related to the burning of a cross on the lawn of the Wari House, the dormitory for African-American women on campus.[8] (Ithaca police reportedly suspected, but never proved, that the cross was burned by members of the campus Afro-American Society as a pretext for further protest).[9] As racial tensions escalated, some African-American students demanded amnesty for the accused protesters as well as the establishment of an Africana Studies center. On April 19, 1969, some of them occupied Willard Straight Hall, ejecting parents who were visiting for "Parents Weekend" from the hotel rooms on the upper floors.[10] Subsequently, white students from Delta Upsilon fraternity unsuccessfully attempted to retake the building by force.[11] Some of the occupying students left the building and returned with firearms in case of a further attack. Then the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led by C. David Burak formed a protective cordon outside the building.[12]

Ultimately, the Cornell Administration, particularly Vice President Steven Muller, negotiated an end to the building takeover. The photos of the students marching out of the Straight carrying rifles and wearing bandoleers made the national news and won a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Steve Starr.[12]

On campus, the Straight takeover led to the formation of the University Senate, a restructuring of the Board of Trustees, a new campus judicial system, and the foundation of the Africana Studies and Research Center. By the end of the academic year, Cornell President James Perkins resigned.[13]

Beyond Cornell, the Straight takeover led to the New York State Legislature enacting the Henderson Law, which required each college to adopt "Rules of the Maintenance of Public Order."[14] Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to the Straight Takeover in speeches as an example of the excess of college students. Thomas Sowell would later refer to the takeover as the result of policies intended to "increase minority student enrollment... by admitting students who would not meet the existing academic standards at Cornell." In Sowell's opinion, some of the militants accepted "turned out to be hoodlums who terrorized other black students".[15]

Current uses[edit]

Inside the Memorial Room, used for administrative meetings, dances, fashion shows, craft fairs, and weddings

The building currently encloses several dining facilities (Okenshields, The Ivy Room, and The Bears Den), and lounge spaces for students. A lounge on the south end of the building is named in honor of Leonard Elmhirst. Special facilities include: Several multi-purpose rooms used for dance and performance troupes, Cornell Cinema (in the Straight Theater), a full service digital computer lab, newly remodeled 2nd floor Elizabeth Staley Office of Student Support and Diversity Education, 5th floor Student Activities Office, Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, offices and mailboxes for student organizations, the 4th Floor WSH Art Gallery, and the Browsing Library, International Lounge, and Music Room. It formerly housed the Cornell Ceramics Studio, which closed in May 2011. A long-running joke among students concerns the placement of a power outlet on the ceiling of the staircase leading down to the Ivy Room.

The offices of Cornell Cinema and the Dean of Students Office are also in the building. [16]

Further reading[edit]

  • Leonard Knight Elmhirst, The Straight and Its Origin, 1975, OCLC 2046429 originally serialized in Cornell Alumni News, 1974–75
  • Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker, The Architecture of Delano & Aldrich, Norton, 2003, ISBN 0-393-73087-5

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Saulnier, Beth (July 8, 2010). "Cornell Alumni Magazine – Living History". Cornell Alumni Magazine. Retrieved July 9, 2010.
  2. ^ F.E. Moyer, ”Cornell Student Activities,” Cornell Magazine (8:4)(Jan. 1895) at 187–194
  3. ^ "The Elmhirst Connection". The Straight. Cornell University Office of the Dean of Students. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  4. ^ "The Straight Opens". The Straight. Cornell University Office of the Dean of Students. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  5. ^ a b Geng, Julie (September 2, 2005). "Straight Up: The Construction of Willard Straight Hall". Cornell Daily Sun. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  6. ^ Anonymous (1982). Dartington. Webb & Bower. ISBN 978-0-906671-39-9.
  7. ^ Young, Michael Dunlop (July 1982). The Elmhirsts of Dartington: the creation of an utopian community. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 978-0-7100-9051-5. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  8. ^ "A campus takeover that symbolized an era of change | Cornell Chronicle". news.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2017-05-26.
  9. ^ Troy, Tevi (13 December 2009). "Cornell's Straight Flush". City Journal. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  10. ^ Neubauer, Richard L. (April 20, 1969). "Parents Expelled From Straight React With Fear, Relate Events". Cornell Daily Sun. p. 1. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  11. ^ Warshauer, Richard M. (April 20, 1969). "White Attempt to Break In Sparks Dispute Over Cops". Cornell Daily Sun. p. 1. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  12. ^ a b Lowery, George (Summer 2009). "40 years ago, a campus takeover that symbolized an era of change". Ezra Magazine. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University. Division of Alumni Affairs and Development. Office of Communications. 1 (4). OCLC 263846378.
  13. ^ Downs, Donald Alexander (April 1999). Cornell '69: liberalism and the crisis of the American university. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-3653-6. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  14. ^ N.Y.S. Education Law § 6430
  15. ^ Thomas Sowell, "The Day Cornell Died," Hoover Digest 1999 no. 4, November 30, 1999.
  16. ^ "Facilities". The Straight. Cornell University Office of the Dean of Students. Retrieved July 26, 2010.