ITHACA, N.Y.—One of Cornell’s oldest campus buildings is getting a significant structural retrofitting, to the tune of $110 million according to documents submitted to the City of Ithaca.
McGraw Hall is slated to receive a large-scale building rehabilitation which will address structural concerns both in the exterior and interior of the buildings, as well as update various infrastructure aspects inside McGraw. The building is one of the first constructed on Cornell’s campus, dating back to 1872.
Built of local Llenroc stone with limestone detailing, the four-story, 60,000 square-foot building was the first on campus to include a tower and was named for university donor and trustee John McGraw. Presently, the building serves as the home to the departments of history and anthropology, as well as the university’s archaeology program.
In Cornell’s own words, “(t)he structure needs major renovations to function as an effective space for research and teaching, with contemporary classrooms, labs and offices,” according to the school’s announcement of a gift secured to help fund the renovations.
The building has been actively deteriorating, gradually becoming a safety hazard to those both inside and outside the structure for some time. In the 1990s, large cracks appeared on the exterior and interior of the building, and the outer and inner wythe (vertical layers) of stone started separating from one another. Chunks of the ceiling have fallen and the building is currently stabilized by metal braces to keep the exterior walls from total collapse onto the sidewalks below, as shown below. In a 2022 Cornell Daily Sun article, a student described the building’s elevators as “scary.”
Plans to renovate the building have been in the works for decades, but compared to the STEM fields and more lucrative majors, McGraw and its humanities-focused occupants had often ended up on the back burner of campus planning. In the early 2010s, emergency repairs were undertaken to steady the exterior masonry with steel supports, repair the roof and replace the gutter system, given material failure and extensive water damage. Plans for a deep and thorough renovation, however, were put on hold due to the university’s budget constraints immediately following the Great Recession.
It appears McGraw Hall’s time has come. The project’s goals are to optimize the space usage and address the repairs needed to the exterior masonry walls and stairs, as well as the numerous structural deficiencies. The interior will undergo a gut renovation and be outfitted with modern structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to service modernized academic spaces and offices, with an eye towards LEED Silver Certification for sustainability. About $50 million of the $110 million project is budgeted towards “hard” construction costs, the materials and labor to undertake the renovation.
When describing renovation, one does not get much more of a “gut” renovation than what Cornell has proposed. For the most part, according to the plans submitted, the only thing that will be preserved is the exterior shell of the building. All existing interior framing within the masonry walls will be torn out and replaced with a new lightweight steel frame, along with concrete on metal floor deck slabs, designed to supplement the load-bearing exterior walls.
Meanwhile, interior stone walls at the east and west ends of the building are slated to be removed to increase interior space, according to the proposal to the city’s Planning Board. The portions of these stone walls that extend above the roof will remain and be supported on the new steel frame. The proposal also states that the construction team will deploy extensive temporary shoring and bracing of the perimeter walls while the new steel superstructure is under construction.
Most of the money for the renovations will be coming from the school’s deep donor base: a January report from the university stated that more than $40 million in financial gifts has been pledged to support the gut renovation of McGraw Hall.
The project will need to go through city of Ithaca Site Plan Review, but being a primarily interior renovation that is on Cornell’s campus with its own zoning, does afford the project a degree of flexibility. However, McGraw Hall is a part of the Arts Quad Historic District, so the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission will have to sign off on highly visible impacts. That includes any exterior work and any highly visible interior work (this generally refers to interior spaces one would see from walking by—which isn’t much in McGraw Hall’s specific case).
If Site Plan Review and ILPC Certificates of Appropriateness are both navigated smoothly, Cornell plans to start the renovation in January 2025, with the project taking nearly three years to complete. School officials are aiming for a December 2027 completion date, according to the proposal.
Beyer Blinder Belle of Manhattan is the architect for the renovation, with Silman, housed 10 blocks away in New York City, providing the structural engineering work. Matthews Nielsen Landscape Architects, which shares Beyer Blinder Belle’s building, is handling the landscaping. Local firm T.G. Miller of Ithaca is doing the civil engineering work for the project.