On North Campus, New Buildings Shape Future of Undergrad Community

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Two recently completed halls now house more than 800 first-year students as residential expansion moves forward

By Joe Wilensky

Jazmin Rodriguez ’25 vividly remembers moving into the brand-new Toni Morrison Hall on North Campus in August. She arrived late in the day, and tried to unpack everything and set up her room before her parents had to leave. She found her name on the door, a welcoming suite, and lots of storage space. “It was so much bigger than I thought,” says Rodriguez, a Massachusetts native and Engineering student. “It looked brand new and absolutely perfect. I moved in around sunset, and we had all this sunshine coming into our room.”

Like generations of Cornellians before her, Rodriguez spent her first days on the Hill personalizing her room; learning about the dorm, the campus, and her schedule; figuring out where and how to study; and meeting new people.

Students study at a table outside Toni Morrison Hall on North Campus
Studying outside Toni Morrison Hall. (Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University)

But for her and the more than 800 others who moved into the Ithaca campus’s two newest residence halls—Morrison and Ganędagǫ: (pronounced Gah-NEH-dah-go)—this fall, those first days were also an immersion into a growing North Campus community that represents a comprehensive and nearly complete reimagining of the residential experience for first- and second-year students.

That area of the Hill has long been home to residence halls and facilities many alumni remember: Risley, Balch, Dickson, and Mary Donlon halls; numerous fraternities and sororities; the Helen Newman gym; the Low Rise and High Rise complexes; Robert Purcell Community Center; program houses like Ujamaa, Just About Music (JAM), and the Latino Living Center; and newer buildings such as Appel Commons and Mews and Court-Kay-Bauer halls.

A visionary plan

In the late 1990s, President Hunter Rawlings III put forth an ambitious proposal that would create a more cohesive and welcoming experience for the incoming class—centered around the new students all living in proximity to each other. Following debate, proposals, and committee reports, in October 1997 he released a comprehensive plan that would require first-years to reside on North Campus, whether in residence halls, program houses, cooperatives, or other affiliated housing.

New residential space would be built; at the same time, renovations and construction on West Campus would demolish the aging and much-maligned U-Halls to make room for living-learning residential colleges and upgrades to existing buildings for upperclassmen and transfer students.

“I am committed to preserving, to the extent feasible, the freedom of choice that has been and continues to be important to students at Cornell,” Rawlings said of the plan, “while also moving decisively to provide a unifying educational experience that will introduce new students to the breadth of the intellectual environment at Cornell and that will enable students to experience the full diversity of the freshman class.”

By fall 2022, when the North Campus Residential Expansion (NCRE) is complete, that bold vision will have come to fruition. Counting Morrison and Ganędagǫ:, five new residence halls—including three still under construction, named in honor of other distinguished alumni (see box below)—will be open. That will allow the University to house not only all first-years on North Campus, but all sophomores on campus or in University-affiliated housing.

(Note: Toni Morrison Hall is not to be confused with the Vet College's Morrison Hall, named for animal husbandry professor Frank Morrison.)

The expansion is the largest construction project in Cornell history, totaling 760,000 square feet. It will ultimately add 2,000 student beds, eateries (including the vast Morrison Dining, slated to open in January 2022), and more—allowing for planned growth in student enrollment while enhancing the residential experience for undergrads during their critical first years on the Hill.

Map showing Cornell's North Campus Residential Expansion with new halls highlighted in red

Spaces designed for interaction

Cross the Thurston Avenue Bridge and stroll up to North Campus today, and you can see how seamlessly the new halls not only coalesce the residential environment there, but extend its reach: the vaulted, terra cotta-and-glass exterior of Morrison and Ganędagǫ: anchor a new center of gravity near Jessup Road; the sight lines outside and through them connect directly with Jameson Hall and Robert Purcell Community Center and stretch all the way to Akwe:kon.

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The buildings are energy- and resource-efficient and were constructed in keeping with the University’s standards for green infrastructure, featuring rooftop solar arrays and utilizing Cornell’s Lake Source Cooling to reduce energy costs.

students study and write on a whiteboard in Toni Morrison Hall
A study session in Morrison. (Photo by Jason Koski/Cornell University)

Inside, the marquee features include bright modern architecture, a spacious state-of-the-art fitness center, a café that specializes in smoothies, and a soon-to-open dining hall featuring 1,000 seats, 11 serving stations, and an attached educational kitchen that will be used by both the Division of Nutritional Sciences for classes and by Cornell Dining to develop recipes, host workshops and more.

The new residences boast a seamless incorporation of technology: students will be able to reserve a study room on their smartphones and get notifications when a washer or dryer is available, or when their laundry cycle is done.

But most transformative to the residential experience are the spaces themselves—and how people are designed to move in and through them. The architecture, the floor plans, and even the flow of ambient noise guide the use of different parts of the buildings, enhancing the likelihood of interactions and collaborations among students and reinforcing a sense of community.

First- and second-floor common spaces, facilities, study areas, and meeting rooms are open to all on campus; keycard access for residents is required on the upper floors. In Morrison, small signs sporting a serious-looking photo of the building’s namesake—the beloved, much-acclaimed author—remind residents of designated quiet hours for reading, writing, and studying.

I never feel secluded and isolated. Even though most people are in single rooms, you are always interacting with them.

Anannyabrata Mandal ’25

Anannyabrata Mandal ’25 is an international student who moved into Ganędagǫ: in August; he says that although the dorm is quite large, with ample privacy, “I never feel secluded and isolated. Even though most people are in single rooms, you are always interacting with them.”

Similarly, Sommaya Haque ’25, a Bronx native who plans to major in information science in CALS, says her Morrison suitemates and others nearby “have been doing a really good job communicating with each other”—for instance, by writing their Instagram handles on their whiteboards and planning group activities like giving out candy on Halloween.

students move into a North Campus residence hall in August 2021
Moving in to Ganędagǫ:. (Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University)

The current setup, with first-year students in single rooms within suites in Morrison and Ganędagǫ:, will be the configuration for only this academic year. When the remaining halls open in fall 2022, they will house first-year students in more traditional double rooms, and Morrision and Ganędagǫ: will be home to sophomores. Additionally, this year Morrison is the temporary home for the all-female community normally housed in Balch, which is closed for renovations.

Mandal, who serves on the Ganędagǫ: council board, notes that as inaugural residents, there’s an additional sense of excitement for him and many of his peers. “We’re taking the first step,” he says, “and there is this kind of venturing into the unknown—even though it’s a good kind of unknown—by setting the traditions and culture that will be here for the following few years.”

In Ganędagǫ:, Mandal adds, he has encountered students with a wide variety of hobbies, backgrounds, and academic interests. “Within my suite, I have people from three other colleges,” he says. “That’s pretty diverse, but at the same time everyone is open and caring. I’ve been able to make friends with people in other suites and hang out with them.”

While that sort of interaction may be true of most dorms, the design of Ganędagǫ: “helps boost this interaction and mingling between students,” Mandal says—and has regularly drawn him to central common areas when he might otherwise have stayed in his room or gone to a smaller study area nearby. “I feel much freer engaging with my peers there, whether it’s collaborating with them or working on other projects,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a chore—it feels like teamwork.”

Rodriguez agrees about the welcoming atmosphere, going on to note that Morrison has become a study spot that appeals to a wide swath of first-years. “On nights before big prelims or exams, there will be a lot of people studying for the same test,” she says. “There will be people asking questions, and someone else at a different table will be answering it. It ends up being a nice community of people.”

Do you have a memory of moving into your first-year dorm or of North Campus you’d like to share? Please do so below!

Published: November 16, 2021


  1. Mawusi Christina Dogbey-Smith, Class of 2002

    I’m blown away by how much North Campus has changed. I spent all four years up there. First-year as a freshman resident and then 3 years as an RA in the High Rises. This is amazing.

  2. Julia

    It’s a shame they segregate students by class, now. I lived in a dorm that housed freshman through seniors and it was a better experience for that diversity. Some of my closest friends are people I would likely never have met had I been stuck in a “freshman only” dorm.

  3. Stuart Baron, Class of 1982

    In days of old, when knights were bold, freshmen lived on west campus, and U-Halls yet roamed the earth, I moved into Sperry Hall on August 27, 1978. Found my name on the door of room 6424, and met my roommate as well as the guy who would become one of my three lifelong best friends.

    Funny thing is, considering the university’s recent aversion to freshmen living down west, most of us overcame and grew up to be contributing members of society.

    • Stephen H Goldberger, Class of 1969

      I lived in Boldt Tower freshman year on the fourth floor, with no elevator. The three flights were a challenge at first, but my legs got used to it. Climbing up libe slope in the winter with icy conditions was an even bigger challenge.

    • Al Rocco, Class of 1982

      No air conditioning in the U Halls. We survived but tuition was under 10k so roughing it was ok. Climbing Libe slope kept us in good shape.

  4. Stuart Rosen, Class of 1999

    I moved into Sperry Hall August 24, 1995. As I was walking down the hall I saw a girl and her mom carrying cinder blocks so I offered to help. Turns out she was my next door neighbor. Also turned out in about a month she would be my best friend. In three months she was girlfriend and in seven years she was my wife. 26 years later she is still my best friend, girlfriend, wife, mother to four amazing kids and the best human being I have ever had the privilege of being in the same room with. I’m very grateful to the co-Ed floors and beds propped up on cinder blocks of the freshman uhaul days. Only way a guy like me gets a chance to meet a girl like her

  5. Katherine Stultz, Class of 1995

    It is exciting to see this vision come together. I was a “north campus” resident. In the early 90s there was definitely this north versus west thing. In good fun but it was definitely in the air. I think it’s great that freshman all start in a zone together and build a community. I got to see some of this incredible build out at one of my recent reunion visits. My only sadness is the vast fields of green are now taken up but it has been planned well to not feel like concrete jungle.

  6. Andy Alpart, Class of 1990

    I lived on West Campus as a frosh and in my junior year as an RA. While on staff, it was a punishable offense to refer to the CLASS HALLS by the name of that truck rental company. Still can’t bring myself to do it (don’t want to get hauled before the Judicial Adminstrator like I was when I shared my meal card with a fellow student at Okenshield’s).

    Thrilled that they’re naming a building after Barbara McClintock. Reading about her in Davydd Greenwood’s class changed my life.

    If today’s students are as happy starting out up north as I was arriving on the west side, they’ll be just fine. Both areas are beautiful now.

  7. Aileen Cleary Cohen, Class of 1988

    I remember moving into Mary Donlon and one of the names across the hall said “Death”. My Dad joked “Death is right across the hall”. Turned out Barb Death (pronounced Deeth) became a friend. The Class of ‘88 freshman Donlon folks still mostly keep in touch-Tina, Ann, Dori and I just had a zoom call a few days ago!

  8. Carol Westenhoefer Anderson, Class of 1963

    I’m glad Cornell is returning to the freshmen-together housing. Reunion Classes are stronger and Reunions more fun as we recall the experiences we shared as dorm and classmates in those most formative years if our adult lives.

  9. Kevin L Cook, Class of 1989

    Absolutely, amazing. I wouldn’t recognize the view from my fourth floor room in Donlon freshman year, when the entire building was reserved for freshmen, alternating male, female, by floor. Sounds like some things have not changed. The full study lounges, even on a saturday morning. Primal screaming? Is it still a thing? When we would all scream from our room windows at midnight to relieve stress. How about snow ball fights following the first snows in front of Donlon?

    • Kim Fisher, Class of 2006

      Primal screaming the night before finals began was still a thing in 2006. I hope it still is today. One of my favorite Cornell traditions!

  10. James C, Class of 1986

    Yikes, I lived in Risley 84-85 and I think Balch was the end of north campus at the time. Too bad Fuertes got so crowded.

  11. Andrew E Hospador, Class of 1962

    In 5-1/2 years on campus I think I crossed the Thurston bridge maybe once. After freshman year in 6416 UH I spent all the time in the engineering quad and Collegetown.

  12. Dianne Gwynne Berger, Class of 1972

    I loved our Beautiful Balch Hall with its lovely furniture. While asleep I move back there in my dreams. The Seniors on our hall were Very Special Friends. Hello, Marcia!

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