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What's wrong with Rand Hall's East Stair Tower?

A site narrative for a new Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University was submitted by Architect Wolfgang Tschapeller (Dec. 2014) as part of his 100% Schematic Design proposal. I've written about it on my blog. Aside from demolishing much of the building's interior structure, the proposal also removes a useful and innocuous egress stair (added to the building's east facade in the late 1960s) because, according to Tschapeller, the stair destroys the "urban relationship of the building, architectural integrity as well as orientation of spaces in Rand Hall."

It is certainly possible to dislike this stair tower, but Tschapeller's claims are a bit overblown: the building is unfortunately sited, with or without the added stair; the so-called architectural integrity of Rand Hall is hardly affected by the stair (scroll down to see my photos of Rand Hall and its stair tower) and is, instead, severely compromised by the architect's own interventions; and the "orientation of spaces" inside the building has nothing to do with the location of the stair, which is outside the building proper. In fact, the stair was, and is, a perfectly reasonable response to the need for a second means of egress in a building designed and constructed with only a single way out. With or without the stair tower, Rand Hall was not originally intended to create a dramatic and symbolic "gateway" from North Campus. Rather, it was built as an addition to a group of temporary engineering structures (including the forge shop and foundry placed north of the Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanical Arts, where the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning now has a home) extending along University Avenue behind the more formal stone-faced Arts Quad buildings.

1909 photo showing University Avenue and including the forge shop and foundry placed north of the Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanical Arts at Cornell University

In this photo from 1909, taken about three years before Rand Hall was completed in 1912, one can see the types of informal and functional engineering structures built along University Avenue behind the stone Arts Quad buildings at Cornell University (image from Ithaca then & now by Merrill Hesch and Richard Pieper).

In 1912, Rand Hall was intended to be the first in a series of industrial-type buildings structures built along University Avenue to replace those "temporary" industrial-type buildings (the Foundry still remains), but those plans never materialized. Either way, it is clear that Rand Hall occupies an awkward spot on the Cornell campus, filling in a patch of real estate that had never before been intended as a site for a building.

1912 proposal for industrial buildings aligned with Rand Hall on the Cornell campus

A series of Rand Hall clones were proposed for Cornell's "Sibley College Buildings," including new industrial shops and laboratories (from the Cornell Alumni News, Jan. 17, 2012). This plan is oriented "upside-down," with south up and north down, unlike the two plans shown below. I've highlighted Rand Hall in yellow.

1909 photo showing 1903 and 1918 Cornell campus plans

Up until Rand Hall was built in 1912, plans of the Cornell campus (left) show East Avenue extending straight into University Avenue; the 1918 plan (right) shows how East Avenue was bent to make room for Rand Hall while also aligning with the 1897 Triphammer (or Cornell Heights) Bridge, rebuilt in 1960 as the Thurston Avenue Bridge. (Plans can be found in Kermit Parson's The Cornell Campus)

So, back to the stair tower. Is it really so horrible that it should be removed at great expense, while necessitating the construction of new interior stairs that not only would take up valuable interior floor space (including in the first-floor shop), but would also make it necessary to punch two new exit doors through the south and east facades and, in so doing, damage the rhythm and pattern of Rand Hall's masonry openings — a problem that the East Stair Tower more effectively resolves. I walked around Rand Hall the other day and documented exactly what this stair looks like from various points of view. Mainly, it's not even visible. The alleged "gateway" view from the Thurston Avenue Bridge (image 5 in the map below) is a myth: one can see neither the stair nor any of the college buildings from that vantage point.

Views of Rand Hall (Cornell University)

annotated google map showing photo locations of Rand Hall at Cornell University

Map: Annotated Google Map showing location of Rand Hall photos

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 1: Looking north from the Arts Quad at Sibley, Milstein, and Rand Halls (East Stair Tower not visible).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 2: Looking north from the east sidewalk of East Avenue at Rand Hall (East Stair Tower comes into view).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 3: Looking across from the east sidewalk of East Avenue at Rand Hall (East Stair Tower visible).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 4: Looking south from the east sidewalk of East Avenue at Rand, Sibley, and Milstein Halls (East Stair Tower visible).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 5: Looking south from the Thurston Avenue Bridge at Rand, Sibley, and Milstein Halls (all of which are obscured by vegetation; none visible).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 6: Looking south from the intersection of East and University Avenues at Rand Hall (East Stair Tower visible, but partially obscured by tree).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 7: Looking across from University Avenue at Rand Hall (East Stair Tower visible, but partially obscured by tree).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 8: Looking across from University Avenue at Rand Hall (East Stair Tower not visible).

Rand Hall, Cornell University, Aug. 2, 2015, photo by J. Ochshorn

Image 9: Looking west from University Avenue, beneath the Milstein Hall soffit, at Rand Hall (East Stair Tower not visible).

See my related writings on the library proposal.