The Notable Lives Behind (Seven More) Big Red Buildings

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In part two of our continuing series, we meet a celebrated scientific couple, a distinguished Chinese scholar, and much more

By Lindsay Lennon

How many times have you uttered the name of a Cornell building—whether you lived, ate, took classes, or studied there—without knowing anything about the person it honors? Here’s a look at some of those memorable lives. (And be sure to check out part one!)

Frank Barton 1891

A photographic illustration of Colonel Frank Barton, with Barton Hall at Cornell University behind him.

There are two plaques in the main stairwell of Barton Hall that commemorate Cornellians who served in World War I. One is for the building’s namesake: Colonel Frank Arthur Barton 1891.

As a student, Barton was a member of Delta Upsilon fraternity and became a U.S. Army officer upon graduation—one of the first two Cornellians to receive a commission—and served in the Spanish-American War, among other conflicts.

Barton came back to the Hill in 1904 to serve as one of the first commandants of the student cadet corps that is now Cornell’s ROTC program—laying the foundation for the military science department still housed in his namesake hall. He later returned to Army service, then came back to campus again after his military retirement. He died in 1921, aged just 52.

As one of the University’s first buildings designed in collegiate Gothic style, Barton Hall—originally called the New York State Armory and Drill Hall before being renamed in the 1940s—was built during World War I for military training, on the site of a predecessor to Fuertes Observatory.

Flora Rose

A photographic illustration of Flora House in front of Flora Rose House at Cornell University.

Rose grew up in a well-to-do Denver family in the late 1800s, but eschewed high society life in favor of a career in home economics—then a still-developing field. After graduating from Kansas State Agricultural College in 1905, she wrote to Cornell and Stanford, urging them to create departments.

“Neither of them had home economics,” she later reflected, “and in my reforming mood I decided that they should.” Two years later, Cornell was convinced.

Rose taught on the Hill for 33 years, helping to grow the fledgling department into the College of Home Economics in 1925 (it would be renamed Human Ecology in 1969).

She also assisted with the research and development of low-cost, vitamin-enriched cereals, which led to her work organizing food relief for malnourished Belgian schoolchildren—efforts that earned her the Insignia of the Order of the Crown from the nation’s King Albert.

Flora Rose House is part of the West Campus House System, a living/learning community led by resident faculty.

Anna Botsford Comstock 1885 & John Henry Comstock 1874

A photographic illustration of Anna Botsford Comstock and John Henry Comstock in front of Comstock Hall at Cornell University.

When they met, Anna was a student and Henry an entomology instructor on the Hill. They married three years later, and soon after, Henry was appointed chief entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Anna, too, was hired by the USDA as a writer and researcher.

By the late 1890s, Anna, a scientific illustrator and researcher, was teaching nature studies as Cornell’s first female faculty member. Together the Comstocks started their own science press, publishing books on insects and wildlife.

Anna—whom the League of Women Voters named one of the 12 greatest women in the U.S. in 1923—chronicled the couple’s lives in her posthumously published autobiography, The Comstocks of Cornell. (In 2020, Cornell University Press released a new edition based on her original manuscript, which had been heavily edited after her death.)

Comstock Hall on central campus, which is named for the couple, houses the Department of Entomology; it’s not to be confused with Anna Comstock Hall on North Campus, home to the Latino Living Center.

Hu Shih 1914

A photographic illustration of Hu Shih in front of Hu Shih Hall at Cornell University.

The renowned scholar and diplomat is widely considered one of the University’s most notable Chinese alumni. Hu was a leader of the anti-imperialist May Fourth movements in China during the early 20th century, helping to advance a political philosophy of freedom, individual rights, and democracy.

Among his many accomplishments is spearheading the effort to replace the classic Chinese literary language with a more accessible “living” tongue.

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While still a sophomore, Hu headed an effort to donate more than 300 Chinese books to the University Library, the beginning of what would become one of the nation’s most robust collections of East Asian literature.

He went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia, and was a Chinese ambassador to the U.S. from the late ’30s through the early ’40s. He served as chancellor of Peking University from 1946–48, and was later named president of the Academia Sinica (Chinese Academy) in Taipei—a role he held until passing away in 1962.

Hu Shih Hall opened on North Campus in fall 2022. Hu is also honored through a named professorship in Chinese history, an annual distinguished lecture in Chinese and East Asian studies at the Einaudi Center, and a recently established seating area on the shore of Beebe Lake.

Jacob Gould Schurman

A photographic illustration of Jacob Schurman in front of Schurman Hall at Cornell University.

Before arriving as a philosophy professor in 1886, the future Cornell president—born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island—studied moral philosophy and mental science in Nova Scotia, Edinburgh, London, and Germany.

His presidential term (1892–1920) was a time of extensive growth for the University. Campus grew from 250 acres to 1,465; enrollment increased from around 1,500 to more than 5,000; and mainstay institutions like the College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the College of Agriculture, and the Medical College were established.

Schurman also advocated for diversity, writing in 1911: “All university doors must remain open to all students irrespective of color or creed or social standing or pecuniary condition.”

While president, Schurman served as chairman of the First Philippine Commission—a federally appointed group assigned to investigate conditions in the Philippines during the country’s fight for independence—and was a U.S. minister to Greece and Montenegro during the Balkan Wars.

Schurman Hall—a three-story, window-filled building in CVM—underwent a massive renovation in 2018, which added (among other features) an atrium with seating areas bathed in natural light.

John McGraw

A photographic illustration of John McGraw in front of McGaw Hall at Cornell University.

McGraw was a self-made millionaire lumber mogul with a deep reverence for classical education, though he himself never received one. Instead, he committed to realizing this dream for his daughter, Jennie, by sending her on a grand tour of Europe starting in 1859.

One of the University’s founding trustees, McGraw gave $120,000 for the construction of the hall that bears his name, which opened in 1872 as one of the three original “stone row” buildings on the west side of the Arts Quad.

The four-story edifice was the first home of the University Library; McGraw and his daughter shared an affinity for rich, diverse university libraries—further informed by her European travels—and were convinced that an institution could not produce fine scholars without one.

From 1873–91, the building’s small tower was home to the Cornell Chimes, until they moved to the iconic structure (later named McGraw Tower) connected to Uris Library.

In January 2023, Arts and Sciences announced a planned $110 million renovation of McGraw Hall—including preservation work on the façade and major interior, structural, and systems updates throughout the building.

Prudence Risley

A photographic illustration of Prudence Risley in front of Risley Hall at Cornell University.

“We may well remember what we are going to have for dinner ten weeks from today,” wrote a student in the Cornell Women’s Review in 1915–16, “but which of us can tell who Prudence Risley was?”

She was born in Connecticut in 1778, married Elisha Sage Jr. at age 23, and had eight children before dying in 1865 (a year after her husband, according to their shared gravestone). In 1911, her daughter-in-law donated $300,000 for the construction of a women’s dormitory on the Hill, to be named in Risley’s memory.

In 1970, the building became the University’s first, and still largest, “program house”: a co-ed residence themed to the arts.

While the castle-like structure on North Campus remains a Cornell landmark, scant information exists on Risley’s life, though her portrait does hang in the building’s Tudor-style dining hall. (The grand room was modeled after the same Oxford University dining hall that inspired the one at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.)

Like many women of her time, Risley’s name most often crops up in reference to a man: in this case, her wealthy financier son, Russell. But she does have the distinction of having a plant—Sinningia ‘Prudence Risley’—named after her; in fact, an Internet search for her mainly turns up images of vibrant pinkish blooms shaped like slender bells.

But in death, she’s the main character of one of the Hill’s spookiest legends: the ghost of “Auntie Pru” has long been reported to slink around Risley Hall, flickering lights and blowing cold drafts.

Top: Video by Sreang Hok / Cornell University. Photo illustrations by Caitlin Cook / Cornell University.

Published April 18, 2023


  1. Victoria Beyer, Class of 1972

    Thank you! I enjoyed this walk down memory lane.

  2. Guy Wells

    A note on the “Risley” portraits: IIRC, a report by CU Archives in the mid-1970s found that there is no known image of Prudence Risley. The halls of Risley did (may still) have two paintings of her daughter-in-law, Olivia Slocum Sage, who donated the building. Her initials are carved here and there in the building, including in its “rotunda” where there’s a full length portrait of her in middle age. The other portrait, looking much like the more grandmotherly photo in your article, is/was over the fireplace in the Dining Hall.

  3. Mary-Ann Reeter, Class of 1973

    Lived in Risley before it became the residential college. Never met Aunt Pru.
    BUT there was a “panty raid”, notable, maybe the last one…

  4. gail gruskin lehman, Class of 1961

    I lived in Risley, on the third floor in a triple room, my freshman year in 1957. It was a wonderful room with leaded glass windows and wonderful detailing. I still am close friends with one of my roommates who is French and lives outside of Paris. Our sophomore year, we three opted to move to Sage. so it appears that we held fast to the family!!

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