McGraw Tower surrounded by scaffolding

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Currently underway, the $7 million renovation will keep McGraw Tower looking the same—only better—for the next 130+ years

This story was condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Holly Hartigan

In 1891, the University Library, with its 173-foot clock tower, was the newest building on the Arts Quad. Cows grazed on Libe Slope as any of the 1,538 enrolled students glanced up to the clocks to check the time. The building glowed with light produced by the newfangled electric lightbulb, and daily concerts rang out from its nine bells.

More than 130 years later, enrollment has expanded to more than 25,000 students, the number of bells has grown to 21—and time and weather have taken a toll on McGraw Tower.

A $7 million restoration of the tower and adjacent Uris Library, underway since summer 2023 and expected to be completed in November 2024, includes replacing roofs, repairing masonry, and shoring up a century-old entryway.

A vintage shot of cows grazing on the slope with the tower and Uris Library in the background
Grazing on the Slope, circa 1891. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

“This is probably the most iconic building in the region,” says Jon Ladley, director of facilities planning for the University Library, who is part of the planning and project management team. “Taking care of this now is definitely the right thing to do from a stewardship point of view, but also from a preservation point of view.”

In July 2023, construction crews began carefully erecting scaffolding and a construction elevator in preparation to replace the famous pyramidal roof.

This is probably the most iconic building in the region.

Jon Ladley, director of facilities planning, University Library

Work has halted for the winter, but in the spring crews will begin removing the roof’s lead-coated copper sheets. The roof was last replaced in the 1930s and has been repaired and patched many times since then, but water keeps finding a way in.

The new roof will maintain the look of the current lead-gray chevron pattern but will be made from sheet lead, a more durable and malleable material. Commonly used on historic buildings today, the sheet lead does not pose any threat to the humans and plants below. Design tweaks to the batten pattern on the roof should prevent water from collecting and lessen the risk of leaks.

While the scaffolding is up, crews will repaint the clock faces and steel hands.

The library’s open hours will remain the same during construction; the Chimes will be silent during the day but will play on evenings and weekends, when crews are not on the roof. The tower will be closed for in-person concert viewing until construction is finished.

In addition to the work on the tower, so far crews have repaired the original sandstone stairs at the main Uris Library entrance, made safety improvements in the belfry, reconstructed the bell tower’s internal roof, and replaced small mansard roofs around the building.

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The Chimes will be silent during the day but will play on evenings and weekends, when crews are not on the roof.

Known as the University Library when it opened on October 7, 1891, the building and tower became a symbol of Cornell, a distinctive landmark that could be seen from miles around.

J. Shermeta, associate university architect in Facilities and Campus Services, says the building was regarded as “high-quality architecture” from its opening: beautiful and solemn, and practical in its utility and choice of materials.

Its mission differed from contemporary university libraries, which were little more than book warehouses with limited hours open only to faculty.

In contrast, Cornell’s library was open to students and faculty alike.

The cross-shape design, natural lighting, and large reading room brought to life the vision of Cornell co-founder and first president A.D. White for the library to be a “secular cathedral” for books and learning.

A close up of the roof of McGraw Tower surrounded by scaffolding
Changes to the roof won't be noticeable from the ground.

In 1962 both buildings were renamed: the library for Harold D. Uris 1925, BS 1926, who was a Cornell trustee from 1967–72, and the tower after early University benefactors Jennie McGraw and/or her father, John McGraw.

(It’s unclear which McGraw the trustees at the time intended to honor—perhaps both.)

In 1868, Jennie donated nine bells to the University for its opening ceremony. Initially installed in nearby McGraw Hall (named for her father), they were the first chimes to be housed and rung on an American college campus. But McGraw Hall couldn’t handle their weight, and 23 years later, the library tower was built to house them.

“We use the clock tower in times of celebration; we use the clock tower in times of mourning,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14. “It serves as a spirit of campus through its prominence, chime, and song.”

A pumpkin on the spire of McGraw Tower
The legendary pumpkin. (Cornell University)

From its early days, the tower has been a victim of pranksters, most famously when a pumpkin appeared atop it in 1997.

An earlier legend suggests a group of fraternity brothers climbed the tower one night in the 1920s and stole a set of clock hands.

Dangling from a rope, one man supposedly unscrewed the hands before his fellow scofflaws hauled him back up to safety.

In fear of being caught, the legend goes, they moved the hands to a nearby chapter of their fraternity at Hobart College in Geneva, NY, and later dropped them into Cayuga Lake.

They retrieved them two years later and moved them to their fraternity basement until they turned up in a 1942 scrap metal drive.

Earle isn’t sure how apocryphal that story is, but it adds to the legend and character of the tower.

“It’s been repeated a number of times but in different ways,” he says. “It makes you feel there is a kernel of truth.”

All photos and video by Sreang Hok / Cornell University, unless otherwise indicated.

Published March 8, 2024

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