The Lives Behind Some of the Hill’s Iconic Buildings

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By Joe Wilensky

At Cornell, as on most campuses, the majority of buildings are named after people. But how many times did you study, play, or eat in one of them—or simply walk past it—without knowing anything about its namesake? The following is a sampling of those impressive lives—distinguished alumni and former faculty (and in one case a Cornellian spouse) who have passed away, but whose memory remains alive through the structures that bear their names.

William Mennen 1908

Photo illustration of William Mennen, Class of 1908, and Mennen Hall

Mennen graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and soon joined his father’s firm, eventually becoming its president. A longtime University supporter, he (with his sister, Elma) funded the 1931 construction of Mennen Hall as part of the men’s dorm complex on West Campus—naming it in memory of their parents, Gerhard and Elma Mennen.

He later gave the University Library a series of gifts from his collection of rare books, including all four of the 17th-century folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays and first editions of novels by Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and William Thackeray, along with several early Bibles.

Alice Hanson Cook

Photo illustration of professor Alice Cook in front of Alice Cook House

A longtime faculty member, Cook—described as “a passionate advocate for improving the well-being of female workers” by her ILR colleague Ron Ehrenberg—came to Cornell in 1952 with three decades of field experience as a labor educator, scholar, and activist.

In the 1970s and ’80s, she was one of the country’s leading advocates for “comparable worth,” a policy requiring that males and females in different occupations, doing jobs of comparable value to a firm, be paid equal wages. She continuously broke new ground: President Dale Corson appointed her Cornell’s first ombudsman.

In 2004, the first living-learning house in the West Campus Residential Initiative—whose buildings are named for legendary Cornell faculty members—was dubbed Alice Cook House. But as government professor Isaac Kramnick once observed, Cook will perhaps be best remembered on campus for breaking a gender barrier in the late 1960s.

“She walked into the all-male faculty club, ordered lunch, sat down, and thoroughly enjoyed it,” he recalled. “With one stroke, Cornell’s lunch counter was forever after integrated.”

Richard Bradfield

Photo illustration of professor Richard Bradfield in front of Bradfield Hall

The professor emeritus of agronomy, who came to Cornell in 1937, was an internationally recognized crop and soil scientist. Committed to the idea that civilization was born when agricultural yields rose above the level of bare subsistence, he regarded the symbiotic relationship between science and farming as the foundation of world society.

Bradfield was a prime mover in the International Agricultural Development Program and a leading advocate for the Cornell project to rehabilitate the College of Agriculture of the Philippines after its devastation in World War II. As one of an initial group of consultants tapped by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1941, he was in on the ground floor of the Green Revolution, recommending an experimental program for agricultural development.

He was also instrumental in founding the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1960. After his retirement the following year, he moved to the Philippines and continued working on improving agronomic practices.

Completed in 1969, CALS’s Bradfield Hall measures 166 feet (11 stories) tall. The imposing Tower Road structure, designed in the Brutalist style with few windows, houses meteorology on its top floor (along with the Water Resources Institute and the Northeast Regional Climate Center) and the departments of crop and soil sciences, earth and atmospheric sciences, and plant breeding and genetics.

Leroy Grumman 1916

Photo illustration of Leroy Grumman, Class of 1916, in front of Grumman Hall

After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree, Grumman became an aeronautical engineer, test pilot, business magnate, and University benefactor. A naval aviator during World War I, he later co-founded Grumman Aircraft Engineering Co. (eventually renamed Grumman Aerospace Corporation and today part of Northrop Grumman) on Long Island.

He designed numerous naval fighter planes and bombers in the 1930s and ’40s that were used effectively during World War II (including the FF-1 and the F6F “Hellcat”), as well as several amphibious aircraft. The company built the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module that landed astronauts on the Moon and brought them back to Earth in 1969; in the 1960s and ’70s it introduced the Gulfstream jet and other military aircraft.

In 1961, Grumman gave Cornell a DC-3 airplane. Named the Far Above and used through 1970, it flew more than 250,000 miles and carried more than 30,000 total passengers—including staff and faculty, athletic squads, and student groups. Grumman served as a trustee from 1953–66 and was among the first alumni designated as a presidential councilor.

In addition to Grumman Hall, which was constructed in 1957 just off the Engineering Quad to house the graduate program in aerospace engineering, he is the namesake of the University’s Grumman Squash Courts.

Hans Bethe

Photo illustration of professor Hans Bethe in front of Hans Bethe House

Bethe was a world-renowned scientist, a professor of physics, and one of the most honored and beloved faculty members in University history.

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He served from 1935 until his death in 2005—at the time, a span comprising half the institution’s existence. Bethe—who published seminal papers in physics from the 1920s until the 2000s—received a 1967 Nobel Prize in the field “for his contributions to the theory of nuclear reactions, especially his discoveries concerning the energy production in stars.” A leading member of the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb, Bethe later became a champion of nuclear arms control.

Hans Bethe House, the third in the West Campus living-learning system, opened in 2007. As Cornell President Jeffrey Lehman ’77 said at the time of its namesake’s passing: “In the breadth of his insight, the rigor of his research, the depth of his social conscience, and the steadfastness of his commitment to Cornell, Hans Bethe set the standard for engaged scientific citizenship that will serve as a beacon for generations to come.”

Myron Taylor, LLB 1894 & Anabel Mack Taylor

Photo illustration of Myron Taylor, LLB 1894, and Anabel Mack Taylor in front of their adjacent namesake buildings

After graduating with a law degree and struggling to establish a practice, Myron joined his brother on Wall Street before turning his attention to textile manufacturing; he came to dominate the industry, amassing a fortune. He was contemplating retirement when, in 1927, J.P. Morgan asked him to reinvigorate the U.S. Steel Corporation; he ultimately became its board chairman and COO.

In 1937, he agreed to unionize the firm, making it the first major industrial company in America to do so. The following year, Myron headed the U.S. delegation to a conference in France aimed at aiding refugees fleeing Nazi Germany; he later served as a presidential representative to the Vatican, among other diplomatic posts, and was a University trustee for 25 years.

Myron and Anabel, the daughter of a shipping magnate, had married in 1906. In addition to being a socialite and patron of the arts, she played an influential behind-the-scenes role throughout his career, including bringing him together with labor leader John Lewis during the U.S. Steel negotiations.

(As Myron himself put it: “Through the span of many years, Mrs. Taylor has been my constant collaborator; in my work a helpmeet in the truest sense; a model of devotion in my tribulations, in illness and in health.”)

They donated the funds to build Myron Taylor Hall—which opened in 1932 as a new home for the Law School—and, twenty years later, for nearby Anabel Taylor Hall, a World War II memorial and student interfaith center. Their marriage of more than a half-century was a true love match: Myron died five months after Anabel’s passing in 1958, reportedly of a broken heart.

Olive Tjaden 1925

Photo illustration of Olive Tjaden, Class of 1925, in front of Olive Tjaden Hall

Tjaden was a pioneering architect who designed more than 2,000 buildings over her long career. She was just 15 when she was admitted to Cornell and completed her bachelor’s degree in architecture in four years rather than the conventional five. (Unsurprisingly for the time, she was the only woman in her graduating class.)

Early in her career, Tjaden supervised the design of more than 400 homes in Garden City, Long Island, including many of its grand mansions. Long the only female member of the American Institute of Architects, she was considered the most prominent woman architect in the Northeast for more than two decades.

In addition to her own practice, she was an inspector for the Federal Housing Administration and a member of the Board of Ethics for Architects for New York State. In 1945, she relocated to Florida, where she designed garden apartments and helped lead the Museum of Fine Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

The building that opened in 1883 at the extreme northwest corner of the Arts Quad was originally called Benjamin Franklin Hall—housing the electrical engineering, chemistry, and physics departments, and named for “America’s first electrician.” It became home to the art department in 1906, and in 1980, University trustees voted to rename it Olive Tjaden Hall. Tjaden funded the building’s 1997–98 renovation, which also restored its long-damaged steeple.

Estevan Fuertes

Photo of Estevan Fuertes in front of Fuertes Observatory

Fuertes, who taught on the Hill for nearly three decades, was Cornell’s first professor of civil engineering and the department’s founding dean. Born in 1838 in San Juan, Fuertes graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in civil engineering and joined a public works department in Puerto Rico.

He spent several years in private practice in New York, and in 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant named him chief engineer in charge of studying a potential ship canal in Mexico to connect the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean; Fuertes’s report remains one of the most valuable existing documents regarding this unbuilt passageway.

He joined the Cornell faculty in 1873; decades later he was also appointed a professor of astronomy and supervised construction of the Barnes Observatory (ultimately demolished to make way for Barton Hall).

Fuertes died in 1903; the observatory on North Campus named in his memory opened in 1917. It remains a popular site for public skygazing programs and events and is home to a century-old telescope that’s still wound by hand. The observatory also houses a museum that highlights the history of astronomy at Cornell and features a collection of vintage instruments.

Charles Hughes

Photo illustration of professor Charles Hughes and Hughes Hall

The law professor only taught on the Hill for two years starting in 1891, but his later career assured him a lasting legacy. Hughes left Cornell to return to private practice in New York City; according to the Law School, the move was “to better support his young family”—and perhaps because his father-in-law, an eminent lawyer, thought serving on the faculty was “a grave mistake” and worried about his grandchildren being raised in a “one-horse town like Ithaca.”

In 1906, Hughes defeated publisher William Randolph Hearst to become governor of New York State; he left office in 1910 when President William Howard Taft named him to the U.S. Supreme Court. He stepped down to run for president but was defeated in a close race by incumbent Woodrow Wilson.

He later served as Secretary of State and was again nominated to the nation’s highest court—this time as chief justice, by President Herbert Hoover—and retired in 1941. The Law School’s Hughes Hall, named in his honor, was constructed in 1963 to house residential and dining facilities.

Photo illustrations by Cornell University. Photos by Cornell University; historical photos provided by the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Published October 5, 2021


  1. Petet Saracino, Class of 1974

    Thanks for the information.

  2. Jason Gettinger

    I appreciate this view of some great Cornellians. I must confess that I had mistakenly believed that the Cook Residential Hall had been named for the late Constance Cook, a Cornell graduate and long a member of the New York State Assembly from Tompkins County and surrounding areas. That Ms. Cook was the first honorary member elected by Quill and Dagger — once an all-male organization.

  3. Melanie Chapel, Class of 1980

    Very interesting. Thank you.

  4. Andrew Goldstein, Class of 1969

    In the late ’60s, I loved playing banjo and guitar in the entry hall at Anabel Taylor Hall. The music resonated beautifully in that stone enclosure. My future spouse (class of 1970) and I then proceeded to The Commons for the fantastic pastries and coffee. Now I know better who to thank for that experience!

  5. Daniel Coates, MS, PhD, Class of 1973

    Cornell’s history, captured as the history of any org or country, is of the greatest value to current members — thanks for this, please keep it up in revealing others who played a role in the University’s growth and global leadership. I think of other giants, only at my School, the ILR School, who are largely forgotten today, to list only a couple: Vernon Jensen, Larry Williams, Maurice Neufeld, and a number of other remarkable scholars most of them women at ILR in my day, leading with the US’s first female Cabinet Secretary (of Labour, to FDR) Frances Perkins, who I was close to. Dan Coates, Ottawa.

    • Andrew Goldstein, Class of 1969

      I reflect on my experience at CALS decades ago. Things like hearing and even meeting Nobel laureates like P. B. Medawar and Hans Bethe, and the exposure to unmatched educational diversity on so beautiful a campus.

    • DONNA GELLIS GRUSHKA, Class of 1964

      I also studied in ILR in the 60’s and among the scholars I remember clearly were Milton Konvitz and M.G. Clark who I had the privilege to work with as a teaching and research assistant

  6. Jay Waks, Class of 1968

    Your photo of Alice Cook, her chopped wood in hand, triggers my memory of her phone call after exams my senior year to join her and her friend at her home to chop wood. Alice said she wanted to teach me her favorite pastime. Among the exceptional female faculty in ILR whom I was so fortunate to have experienced (courses with Alice Cook and Jean McKelvey along with a talk followed by a group meet and greet with Frances Perkins), Alice’s wood chopping invitation always will be remembered as a standout, not the least because of its non-academic focus and her friendship.

  7. Wendy Sneff, Class of 1975

    This is very interesting. Could you continue the series with information on additional building benefactors such as Goldwin Smith and others?

  8. Marcia Wities Orange, Class of 1971

    How good to know about the people behind the campus building names.

    I hope some future buildings will be named in honor of the late, great Charlie Russell and Prof Isaac Kramnick

  9. Carole Kenyon, Class of 1959

    A future addition to this fascinating post might – please – include Willard Straight. – (Also, there is a fountain at one of the side exits of Goldwin Smith that is dedicated to two graduates (?) from Auburn. There were brothers I’m guessing and died of the “Spanish” influenza from the dates of their death – as did Willard Straight?

  10. David A Rash, Class of 2014

    Although Olive Tjaden was likely the only female member of her local chapter of the American Institute of Architects when she joined in 1938 the national organization, she was not the only female member of the AIA. Julia Morgan in San Francisco, California, joined the AIA in 1921, at which time she was undoubtedly the first and only female member. These two women were joined by Elizabeth Ayer of Seattle, Washington, in 1940. Nonetheless, Ms. Tjaden had a most remarkable career as an architect and a Cornell graduate.

  11. Pam Anderson, Class of 1988

    very interesting to hear about the history of these famous Cornell alumni

  12. Lynne Verna, Class of 1960

    Loved this. Could you continue the theme, looking at some of the science buildings?

  13. Rachel Taylor Baroni, Class of 1964

    This history is very interesting and inspirational.

  14. Julian Max Aroesty, Class of 1953

    I was a science and math major. In 1953 I took the Hans Bethe senior level course entitled “physical chemistry”, a study of subatomic physics. Some of the concepts were complicated but he made certain everyone in the room fully understood the material by encouraging questions before going on to the next level.

    He was a spectacular educator, a brilliant scientist and a kind thoughtful gentleman who followed Albert Einstein’s advice regarding complicated scientific material — “If you can not explain it to others in simple terms, you do not fully understand it.” His course was one of the high points of my Cornell scientific education.

  15. Dale Novick

    Spectacularly interesting info! Thank you. Please leave more interesting info regarding graduating with a degree in History of Art, my major. Thanks again!

  16. Sohail Murad, Class of 1979

    I am glad you did not highlight Goldwin Smith here. The more I read about him the more I am appalled that despite knowing his views Cornell decided to honor him with a building and several named Professorship. Apparently he though if women were accepted to Cornell it will become the equivalent of a Community College, was a white supremacist who believed Anglo-Saxons should rule the world (said if Indian were given even any level of self-governance it would fall apart), and he very strong anti-semit views. Any chance Cornell will do the right thing and stop honoring him now.

  17. Martha Victoria Rosett, Class of 1978

    Please add Barton Hall! In the west stairwell there is a plaque with information about the man for whom this building is named. Read that, and add him to this list. Barton Hall is a wonderfully historic building, and also very beautiful. Barton Hall is my favorite building in this world, and I have seen many famous buildings (including the Parthenon during a visit to Greece in 1969).

  18. Tony Wohlfarth, Class of 1980

    I know of one other famous Cornellian, Ken Dryden, who was a member of the men’s hockey team and went on to a an incredible career in the National Hockey League (NHL) playing for the Montreal Canadiens

  19. Jeanne Schwetje, Class of 1978

    I loved this article. My Dad studied chemical engineering at Cornell. He also was a naval pilot ( WW11), and became an aerospace engineer. He worked for decades at Grumman and was on the team that made the lunar module. I never knew Grumman went to Cornell! I was in the Arts school , so not on the engineering quad, but nevertheless,my Dad told me to give a Bronx cheer whenever I passed Baker Hall…

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