Watermargin residents hang out at the house in 1950

For 75+ Years, Students Have Made Watermargin a Home

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By Joe Wilensky

When you enter the Watermargin Co-op, you’ll find evidence of three-quarters of a century of cohabitation by people from different backgrounds and traditions. Located at 103 McGraw Place at the edge of West Campus, the house carries the imprint of generations of past residents—from artwork and murals to vintage group photos, eclectic décor, and an ever-evolving collection of books.

A plaque in the entryway reads “All men are brothers / All people are family.” It’s accompanied by the Chinese character for “water,” which also appears above the front entrance of the five-story house, founded in fall 1948 and currently home to 23 residents.

Watermargin’s back porch swing remains a favorite house hangout
The back porch swing remains a favorite hangout.

“The house’s focus on intergroup living keeps it unique and continues to draw interest from students,” says Lou Hom ’93, a former resident who has remained involved with the co-op and serves on its board of directors. “There are various program houses that tend to focus on individual cultures, but Watermargin was always meant to be an intersectional space.”

The co-op is preparing to mark its 75th anniversary later this spring, with a reunion planned for May 4, 2024 (details are pending).

Given that milestone, alumni and current members are looking back at its history and how the house continues to promote its ideals.

This photo of Watermargin’s founders was displayed in the house for years
This photo was displayed in the house for years.

Initially dubbed the United World Foundation, Watermargin was conceived by a group of World War II veterans who were attending Cornell under the G.I. Bill.

Having fought for democracy, they found they could not reconcile the principles for which they’d risked their lives with the widespread discrimination and segregation they saw when they returned to the U.S.

As mature undergraduates with notable life experience, they were inspired to create a community that would promote understanding across races, national origins, and religions.

The Watermargin house today
A quarter-century and counting: The house today.

The group took its name from the English title of a centuries-old Chinese novel, Shui Hu Zhuan, which also had long been interpreted as “all men are brothers.”

(It had been translated into English in 1933 by a fellow Cornellian: Nobel laureate Pearl Buck, MA 1925.)

Formed and first incorporated in 1947, Watermargin secured its house the following year, leasing it from the University beginning in fall 1948.

Among its founders were future Cornell Alumni News editor John Marcham ’50, union leader Jacob “Jack” Sheinkman ’49, JD ’52, labor activist and mediator Samuel H. Sackman ’49, and cultural anthropologist James Gibbs Jr. ’52.

“Watermargin did not see itself as a fraternity per se, but fraternity-like—and we wanted to show the fraternities, with their discriminatory patterns, a different way that people could live together,” Gibbs recalled in a 2006 interview for the HistoryMakers website.

The house’s focus on intergroup living keeps it unique and continues to draw interest from students.

Lou Hom ’93

Watermargin was unique not only at Cornell but nationwide as the first racially integrated, interfaith living unit on a college campus.

(While women could be members by the 1960s, University and in loco parentis rules of the time kept the house itself all male until about 1970, when it finally became co-ed.)

The house’s ambitious educational outreach program brought high-profile speakers—including Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Margaret Mead, Malcolm X, and Marian Anderson—to campus in its early years.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously visited Watermargin and spoke on campus in 1948
Eleanor Roosevelt famously visited the house and spoke on campus in 1948.

“It seems to me very encouraging that these young people should take such an interest in human rights and freedoms,” Roosevelt wrote in her nationally syndicated newspaper column in 1948, recounting her visit to campus.

“It is encouraging that they should recognize so quickly that our acceptance of these ideals is just a spelling out of the real ideals of democracy. They believe that only by putting them into practice will we demonstrate to the world what democracy really stands for.”

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From the beginning, Watermargin members worked to combat discrimination on campus and in the wider community.

Watermargin residents gather for a group photo on Fall Weekend 1962
A festive group photo from a spring 1962 gathering.

In addition to hosting speakers and debates, the co-op screened films, published a newsletter, fielded intramural teams, produced a radio program, and sponsored a conference on “Inter-Group Living and the College Campus.”

But it wasn’t all work and no play. The house was reportedly a popular after-concert destination: it held receptions for performers like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and their bands, and, in 1969, hosted an infamous afterparty following a Janis Joplin concert.

Perhaps surprisingly, by the tumultuous late ’60s and early ’70s, Watermargin was drawing students who were more artistically inclined than politically active.

Two Watermargin students hang out outside the house in this undated photo
Two residents jam in this undated photo.

During that era, the house took on the cooperative structure that remains today.

Residents share cooking and cleaning responsibilities as well as participate in regular meetings, governance, and other management roles.

Kathy Menton Flaxman ’71 recalls the house as a center of creativity—for example, a few residents would regularly scour the music library for chamber pieces that had parts to fit whatever assortment of musicians were living there at the time.

“I remember a violin, a cello, a flute, a French horn, the piano,” she says. “They would sit down and try to bang something out.”

After developing a reputation as somewhat of a party house through the ’70s, Hom says, Watermargin underwent a renaissance in the ’80s, when “there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm for reviving the original mission and purpose.”

Watermargin residents share a meal in a house common area
Sharing a meal in a common area.

While campus was by then home to a new generation of program houses and living centers geared toward particular groups and interests, Watermargin offered a contrasting option: bringing students from diverse backgrounds and life experiences together.

Says Hom: “We always liked to point out that at one time, Watermargin was home to the presidents of both the Cornell Democrats and the Cornell Republicans.”

Watermargin is one of eight co-ops owned by the University as residential options for students. (Others include 660 Stewart Avenue and Prospect of Whitby.)

It seems to me very encouraging that these young people should take such an interest in human rights and freedoms.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1948

In contrast to the “rushing” process for Greek organizations, co-ops host a “mosey” as a purposely more low-key alternative.

Current house president Shahad Salman ’24, a global public health sciences major in Human Ecology, lived in a dorm her first year. But she was looking for a smaller community, and a friend told her to check out Watermargin.

“People have been really great,” she says of the current crop of residents. “They’re very devoted, caring, and diligent about keeping up with the responsibilities of the co-op.”

Archaeology major Remy Kageyama ’25 notes that just as the house was unique in the ’40s and ’50s as an interracial and interfaith residence, today it’s notable for having many residents who are from under-represented groups, come from low-income households, or are LGBTQ+.

“It has been really valuable to have that cohort here and to be in community,” says Kageyama, “to be joyous, to collaborate in a warm and safe environment for people from all backgrounds.”

The house’s recent guest speakers have included local farmers and entrepreneurs who provide much of the co-op’s food. Other presentations have come from the residents themselves, who have shared talents and interests including crocheting and birdwatching.

“I see our home as something that we have to actively make, and create, in the day to day,” says comparative literature major Michelle Wei ’24. “We have to be very intentional that there’s this give and take in our living situation, and you have to show up for yourself, and for others, in whatever ways you can.”

Top: Residents hang out in 1950. All vintage images courtesy of Rare and Manuscript Collections; modern photos by Joe Wilensky / Cornell University.

Published January 19, 2024


Comments

  1. Jim Lebret, Class of 2000

    I formed lasting connections at Watermargin, where despite our diverse backgrounds, the shared experience of living together has created a bond. We consistently exchange fresh perspectives, and I am thankful for that.

    • Robert Brooks

      I met Malcolm X there. My most memorable Cornell experience
      Robert Brooks G 61 G65

    • Emily Gangemi, Class of 2001

      I feel much the same way, Jim. It was a privilege getting to know you and several other housemates there in 1998 and 1999. I consider living at Watermargin to have been an extremely formative part of my Cornell education. Best wishes to you.

    • Wei, Class of 2002

      I resided there from late 1998 until my graduation in 2002. Watermargin became the heart of my Cornell journey, crafting enduring memories and leaving an indelible impression. The friends I made, including Jim and Emily among many others, stand out as some of the coolest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Moreover, the unique opportunity to meet and interview the veterans and early members of the house several years later added an extra layer of richness to this exceptional experience.

    • Michael Black, Class of 1997

      Come and join us for the reunion on May 4th, Jim! It would be good to see you again!

      May the 4th be with you!

      Best,
      Michael Black

  2. Jose Miguel Garcia

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article about Watermargin’s 75th anniversary. It provided a fascinating glimpse into the history of the house, and I appreciate the effort to share such stories with the Cornell community.

    Having visited the house myself, as my daughter resided there, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment expressed. While preserving the historical significance of Watermargin is essential, I believe there is a compelling case for the university to consider investing in its renovation.

    The current conditions of habitability, as you pointed out, leave much to be desired. It is crucial not only to honor the past but also to ensure that these historical spaces are made suitable for present and future generations to use and enjoy. A thoughtful renovation could not only enhance the living conditions but also contribute to the continued legacy of Watermargin.

    Thank you for shedding light on this important aspect, and I hope the university takes into account the potential benefits of revitalizing this historic residence.

    Best regards

  3. Wallace Venable, Class of 1962

    The 1962 party photo illustrates that social activity was focused primarily on heterosexual events at that time, but there was also tolerance of homosexual relationships between members during that period.

  4. DAVID C COLE, Class of 1950

    Jack Sheinkman, 3rd from left in Founders photo and siting next to Eleanor Roosevelt in that photo, was also a resident of Telluride House from 1948-49. I believe he was an undergraduate in I&LR School at that time, graduating in 1949. He was a founder of and active participant in Watermargin but living in Telluride House, where he was my “john-mate.” He went on to a distinguished career always focused on socail issues and betterment for all. A great guy!

    • Mary Beth Norton

      Jack Sheinkman and Jim Gibbs both became members of the Cornell Board of Trustees in the 1970s/80s, which is how I, a faculty trustee at the time, met them both. I didn’t know about their connection to Watermargin.

    • Harry R Kirsch, Class of 1954

      I was born in then Czechoslovakia. After the country fell behind the iron curtain in 1948, our family left and came to the USA in 1949. I learned that Cornell was offering a scholarship to a recent refugee. I applied, was accepted, and was fortunate to spend the 1950/51 school year living for free in Watermagin. It was an opportunity to learn about my new country, including the ugly facts of discrimination. I was honored to be seated at dinner next to Mrs. Roosevelt during her visit to the house. Also, Jack Sheinkman interviewed me and hosted me for dinner at Telluride. I eventually became a regular member of Watermargin.

      • Laszlo I Szerenyi, Class of 1962

        I was not actually a member, though my best friend Holly Ferenc (aka. Frank Holly), a graduate student in chemeistry was. We were both from Hungary who escaped after the Revolution of 1956. He had often invited me to Watermargin where the members vere extremely friendly.

        Frank did receive his PhD, and I my BEEE and am forever greatful to Cornell for giving me, a poor Hungarian refugee, the opportunity for a good education.

        There were other Hungarians at cornell at the time, namely one who became quite famous, Peter Gogogolak. Besides being a soccer style fiedgoal kicker – the first in the NFL

    • Michael Black, Class of 1997

      It would be great to have you join us for the reunion on May 4th in Ithaca and speak on Jack Sheinkman. I spoke at his funeral because Watermargin was such an important part and accomplishment of his life, but I did not know him like you did.

  5. Irwin S. Bernstein, Class of 1954

    We believed in “Education with a Beer Mug” and had open parties to show the rest of the campus that inter racial living could be done, and done well. Watermargin continues to bring all people together, even as the focus shifts. I am proud to be one of the early members. And yes, we did fight among ourselves, but that is what family does.

    • Michael Black, Class of 1997

      Come and join us for the reunion on May 4th, Irwin! It would be good to see you again and get your help labeling some of the old photos.

      May the 4th be with you!

      Best,
      Michael Black

  6. Sarah Johnson-Welch, Class of 1972

    Ah, the “infamous afterparty following a Janis Joplin conference!” My friends and I left before Janis got there, and subsequently nobody said much to us freshman year future Watermargin members.

    • Kathy Menton Flaxman, Class of 1971

      Hello Sarah Johnson! I missed that party too–spent the night at my boyfriend’s apartment and returned the next morning to hear about what I had missed :^(
      Hope you are doing well!

    • Alan S Buchberg, Class of 1973

      Living in Watermargin for two years is one of my best memories of Cornell. Coop and coed living is just natural, a great preparation for real life after college. Sarah – in the comment above – and Kathy – in the comment below were two of the great people living there for part of my residence.

      • Katherine Gillespie Dote, Class of 1974

        Although I only lived at Watermargin one academic year (1971-1972), it was one of my best experiences at Cornell. It was a time of great anti-war sentiment and Watermargin had the honor of having US Senator Ernest Gruening as a dinner guest. It remains a cherished memory for me.
        Since graduation I have spent many years living in Asia and the Western Pacific. I recently retired and live with my daughter in Hawaii.

    • Sarah Johnson-Welch, Class of 1972

      To Kathy and Alan: so long ago and far away and yet so memorable. I remember you guys well and with pleasure. We may or may not have changed as much in appearance as the campus seems to have… cheers!

      • Jessica Gurevitch, Class of 1973

        Kathy, Sarah and Alan, lovely to see your posts, Watermargin was indeed a formative time and influence in my life as well. Are any of you coming for the reunion? I just learned about it. I hope you are all doing well. I am living in Indiana and still working – at Purdue now.

  7. Harvey Rothschild, Class of 1963

    I was a “Marginal” from spring semester 1960 (the earliest I could join a fraternity) through my graduation in June 1963. Back then we were an independent fraternity; not a member of IFC but adhering to their rules as to rush. The party weekend photo is from Spring Weekend 1962. There are people in the photo who weren’t on campus Fall Weekend 1962 either taking a term off or having graduated. I’m not in the picture and I have a copy of Fall Weekend 1961 where I’m standing next to my date who a year later was not only my date for Fall Weekend 1962, but my wife.

    • Joe Wilensky

      Thanks for the date correction on the photo; we have updated the caption!

    • Kathy Menton Flaxman, Class of 1971

      When I was first a member (and resident!) in 1968-69, we were still working under IFC rush rules. It was fun to take a coed team into the men’s dorms during rush week to recruit for Watermargin!

    • LASZLO Imre SZERENYI, Class of 1962

      Harvey, you may remember Frank Holly who was a memeber the time. He was a Chem. Grad student who came from Hungary after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He invited me to the house a number of time and the members were kind enough to “rush” me. I never did become a member….was to young (17) and socially ackward at the time…. I came back though for my 50th reunion and stopped by the house to say hello.

  8. Bruce Guthrie, Class of 1987

    We also called 113 Oak Ave ‘Watermargin.’ I lived there in the mid ’80’s. Different building, but similar vibe. We had elected officers, rented our rooms to people we accepted after interviews, and cooked common meals in rotation. I had a garret room that also served as a fire escape hallway.

  9. Troy Thompson, Class of 1993

    Watermargin was one of the great highlights of my Cornell experience and this article stirs wonderful memories. I still believe in the power of what Lou Hom, my friend and fellow Marginal, calls this “intersectional space”. Mosey was not just a low-key alternative to rush. It was a lottery. For me that was always one of the most important aspects of the Watermargin ideal–deliberately choosing to live and learn with others whom you have not chosen.

    That’s me on the left atop the ladder in the ’92 photo–my last fall work party. Here’s to another 75 years!

  10. Iris Saxet, Class of 1992

    I had lots of friends at Watermargin in the late 80s although I ended up being a Crammie. Coop living is such a great opportunity for Cornellians to integrate with a diverse community. Very impactful for me.

  11. Leslie Nigel Colborn, Class of 1968

    For a native English kid, coming to Cornell as an undergrad was a daunting experience. I had been told about Fraternities but after being invited to join several, I was reluctant to join. But then, someone mentioned Watermargin. When invited to see the House and to meet the resident students, I knew this was where I belonged. Lifelong friends were made made during my four wonderful years on that beautiful campus. Also,I learnt almost as much from my housemates and other student friends as from the University undergraduate degree course.

  12. Shelley Winkler, Class of 1976

    I love everything about this! I have never known about Watermargin. I would love to know more about the Janis Joplin afterparty! Please share! We need it for the historic record and I am betting it’s a window into those crazy times! I was lucky to be on campus not too long after and live some truly whacky moments.

  13. Barrett Klein, Class of 1993

    I loved being a Marginal! It was my first experience (co-)cooking for more than a few people*, and allowed me to organize an entomophagy event with respectful, joyous attendees. So many great friends.

    *I had survived on Cornell’s meal plan my previous few years, so was not very culinarily savvy. I was paired with someone who had never cooked, so together we triumphantly whipped up a rice-based goulash-type dish with a side dish of rice, and for dessert… rice pudding. Not the most celebrated of meals.

  14. Arthur Horowitz,MD

    Watermargin was not a coop in my day but a local fraternity based on fellowship not religion, race or social status as were most of the other frats and my home for 4 years. Unlike many of the other frats, jobs such as waiting on tables, dish washing and stoking the furnace were performed by members rather than hired out.(And we sponsored Eleanor Roosevelt at Bailey Hall as well as our predecessors!) Who can forget the two Hungarian freedom fighters who fled Hungary during the anti-communist uprising who joined us, my Thai buddy who claimed he didn’t know how to play poker but cleaned us out every night or my East Indian graduate student roommate who preferred Beethoven’s 7th to Shostakovitch’s 5th on our phonograph. Who will forget our chef, George as much a mentor and friend whose fearsome looking Boxer dog “Major” was afraid of his own shadow. When I wasn’t washing dishes or serving tables to pay off my poker debts, I served a term as steward and another as social chairman, a thankless job trying to figure out whether it would be Genesee, Utica Club, Carlings of Schlitz beer. (Even in desperation Stegmiear beer was not an option). I left Watermargin with many enduring memories and friendships.

  15. Jeffrey Eldredge, Class of 1983

    Somewhat off-topic, but I have scoured the Internet for a reference to what I recall (hopefully with some accuracy) as a kind of informal cooperative house located on Highland Ave near TKE, with the name “Magic Mountain” (after the Thomas Mann novel) and populated with a fair number of former Risley residents. I was invited to a communal breakfast/brunch there one time during my first year in 1979 or 1980, and it was a lively and creative community. I was aware of Watermargin of course, as a resident of West Campus, and through an older acquaintance who lived there, a brilliant and extremely skilled engineer and artist. While I never lived in a co-op I always noted their importance to the fabric of alternative and intellectual life at Cornell.

  16. Bob Rubin, Class of 1967

    Living at Watermargin during my sophomore and junior years was full of great memories with fellow students and a few graduate students. One of them, Bob Cedergren and his Black girlfriend (and then wife), Henrietta, were role models for many of us. Opportunities were for the taking -– for me as social chairman, vice-president, quarterback (fraternity league), and … dishwasher. The education chairman hosted a reception at Watermargin for Dr. Timothy Leary after his campus lecture on the virtues of LSD, although I wasn’t impressed and not one of the potheads. And “hello” to my old friend Nigel Colborn (four entries up).

    • Leslie Nigel Colborn, Class of 1968

      Hello to you, too Bob! Those were happy days indeed. Dr Leary joined me for breakast the morning after his talk. It turned out he was broke, so I had to pick up his tab as well as my own. A few years ago I bumped into Jack Richman, my roommate off campus during our Junior and Senior years. I was giving a lecture in Seattle when he and his partner emerged from the audience. While lunching together he told me had become a Canadian citizen.

  17. Katie Higgins Tazza, Class of 1975

    I think I was there in around 1973. I hadn’t thought about it in years. I remember when Julie brought home a piglet from grand rounds and it lived at Watermargin.

  18. Bob Friedman, Class of 1954

    I was a member in the early 50s, living at Watermargin in my senior year, 1954. I got to know intimately a number of people I would not have, had I had another affiliation. The most memorable was Carl Dudley who became a minister who was very active in forwarding interracial projects. Dr. Bob Friedman

  19. Eden (Rhynehart) Rose, Class of 1983

    My dad’s generosity and carpentry skills helped me to get into Watermargin! I arrived in the summer term looking for housing. The tiny room on the second floor with a view of the bell tower had sadly been demolished by the previous occupant. My dad and I totally repaired the room, as I had negotiated occupancy (begged 🙂 post repairs. An awesome “home away from home” for my Cornell years. I have fun memories and lifetime friends. Worldly Watermargin was the perfect fit for me.

  20. Joan Seifried Taylor, Class of 1974

    Watermargin was a real life-affirming place to live in the early 70’s.
    We planted vegetables out back, grew pot in our rooms, and generally made the house our home.
    I was very grateful for having been invited to stay there with my good buddy, Jack Puntorno. I ended up living there for three more years, I believe. Bill Chapp was house manager for ages. There are so many people I’d love to give a shoutout to, but hesitate to leave anyone out! For this reason, I will only mention my hippie comrade, [Christopher] Todd Blossom.

    • Alan Kay, Class of 1974

      Gosh, I remember so many of my housemates – you and Jessica and Sarah and Alan B. and Katherine and Katie and Julie! Jack Puntorno lived right across the hall from me freshman year – I remember being sad when Jack dropped out. My best friend, Jimmy Rubenstein, was a housemate (he brought in roosters from his science research that woke us up way too early!) and sadly, he passed away a few years ago. For me Watermargin was good, good memories! Thanks, y’all!

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