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Sage Hall: Experiments in Coeducation and Preservation at Cornell University

by Jennifer Cleland and Robert P. Stundtner

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The renovation of Sage Hall on the Cornell University Campus in the late 1990s ignited controversy from historic preservationists and architectural historians. On April 21, Saturday, from 2 to 3:15 p.m., a panel of participants in that controversy spoke at the History Center. Present were Jennifer Cleland, Cornell Ph.D., and Robert Stundtner, Director of Capitol Project Management at Cornell, authors of Sage Hall: Experiments in Coeducation and Preservation at Cornell University, and Alan Chimacoff, the principal architect at Ikon5 Architects. Dr. Cleland presented the history of the building, constructed as a women's residence in 1874, which made coeducation at Cornell a reality. This history reflects the early feminist movement in upstate New York, and the social reformism of the founders of the University. Mr. Stundtner discussed the challenges of the renovation project. Panelists and audience members explored a vital question on whether the rebuilding of Sage Hall furthered or detracted from efforts to preserve history. A special guest at the event was Ezra Cornell, who read a letter from his great-great grandfather, which was found when the original cornerstone was opened during the site renovation. For more information on this and other programs, please visit or call 607.273.8284 ext. 0. The History Center is located east of the Ithaca Commons, at 401 East State Street, Ithaca, New York.
CORNELL ALUMNI MAGAZINE, January / February 2012

Inside Job, by Jim Roberts, Editor

Self-published book recounts the Sage Hall renovation

The 1996-98 renovation of Sage Hall was one of the most complicated and controversial projects in Cornell's history. The old building, which had opened as a residential college for women in 1875, was in terrible shape, so the renovation essentially consisted of putting a new structure inside the original walls. Easier said than done.

Sage Hall: Experiments in Coeducation and Preservation at Cornell University by Jennifer Cleland '72, PhD '99, and Robert Stundtner begins with an overview of Sage's early history and the battles that accompanied its pioneering role in co -education. The account of the renovation starts about halfway through and is interwoven with a memoir of the courtship and marriage of Cleland and Stundtner. The most entertaining reading, though, is the series of construction update e-mails written by Stundtner, the project manager, which are reproduced more or less verbatim. He traces the progress in detail, often with wry humor, providing a sort of cinema verité overview of the day-to-day troubles and triumphs. There's also a good account of the opening of the original cornerstone, which contained Ezra Cornell's 1873 letter to "the coming man and woman"—a missive whose contents had remained mysterious for more than a century.

Like many self-published works, this book suffers from curious typography and errors large and small. Even so, the inside view of the massive project that produced a spectacular new home for the Johnson School is a valuable nugget of Cornell history. For more information, go to:

— Jim Roberts '71

Sage Hall: Coeducation and Preservation - Ithaca Times : Arts & Entertainment

By Bill Chaisson | Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 12:00 am

In 1873 Sage Hall was built as the first women’s dormitory at Cornell University. One hundred and twenty years later it was in bad repair when the university decided to renovate it to make it the new home for the Johnson School of Management. Jennifer Cleland and Robert Stundtner have written Sage Hall: Experiments in Coeducation and Preservation at Cornell University to tell the story of the buildings original purpose and the story of its conversion to its present purpose. Both are tales full of controversy. The third thread woven through the narrative is the story of the authors’ romance and marriage, which took place while Stundtner was the project manager for the building’s reconstruction.

Upon completing the manuscript and beginning the search for a publisher, Cleland found that the unorthodox combination of topics made it a difficult product to sell. Based on a description in a letter from Cleland, Cornell University Press rejected the manuscript without looking at it. “I decided that if they didn’t want it, then no one else would,” said Cleland, and the authors decided to finance the printing out of their own pockets, sending it to Create Space, an company.

The seed from which the rest of the book grew is the collection of project updates that Stundtner sent out as emails to an ever-growing list of people in the mid-1990s during his oversight of the renovation. According to Cleland, it was John Gutenberger, the director of community relations at the university, who told Stundtner that the well-written electronic reports should be collected into a book.

Cleland arrived at the Cornell campus as a freshman in 1968, a century after the founding of the university. She stayed for three years, but amid the increasing on campus furor she took a leave of absence in 1971. She fully intended to return within the five years that Cornell allows for student hiatuses, but she joined the Highwoods String Band in 1972 and spent several years in the music business. She finished her undergraduate degree at Westminster College in Pennsylvania in 1989 and moved back to Ithaca in 1990 to return to Cornell, but now as a Ph.D. student in Romance literature.

Between 1999 and 2008 Cleland worked as an assistant to chemistry professor Roald Hoffmann. “I helped him with his non-chemistry work,” she said. “He did a lot of poetry writing. Three and a half years he retired and my job went away, but I got a retirement out of it because I’d done it for 10 years.”

In 1996 Stundtner was chosen to be the project director for the transformation of Sage Hall into the school of management. By 1998 he and Cleland were married, most of the emails that would become chapter 4 of the completed book had been written and Cleland had begun mulling over the form and scope of the narrative. It would be worked on only fitfully for several years, with editing taking place during vacations. “I would put it away for a year and then come back to it,” she said. “I was fighting the inherent structure that was there.”

“Last fall I came back to the book,” Cleland said. “My brain had worked on it, and I saw a new way to write it.” Cleland devoted the first chapter to capsule biographies of Ezra Cornell, A.D. White, and Henry Sage. The principles of the first two men made coeducation at Cornell a goal and the money (and slightly different principles) of the third actually paid for the building that would make it possible. In the second chapter describes the political environment of upstate New York that led to support for the education of women alongside men in the 19th century.

It is the fourth and fifth chapters that will be of the most interest to those who remember the legal challenge by preservationists. Cleland and Stundtner simply present their side of the story. Stundtner is a project manager, not an architect or an architectural historian. The information here is largely a chronicle of pragmatic hardship, keeping the construction on schedule in spite of delays due to bad weather, unexpected weaknesses in the dilapidated remains of the Gothic women’s dormitory, and tussles of the legal and regulatory kind.

The reasoning of Alan Chimacoff, the principal architect of The Hillier Group (and a Cornell alumnus), which took on the renovation of Charles Babock’s building, is described briefly and clearly. The argument of the preservationists is not presented here at all. This book is not a case study; it does not systematically lay out the arguments of both sides of a philosophical debate. It is actually a human story about a project manager who does his job well in face of challenges on several fronts, and who also manages to find a new relationship and restart his life in the middle of all the above.

Cleland sent a copy of Sage Hall to the university’s alumni magazine, but received no response to her submission. “Three months later I called to ask them who had the book,” she recalled. “They asked if it was self-published, and then told me that they don’t do anything with self-published books.” Nonetheless she has persevered, promoting the book locally with a recent appearance at the Cornell book store and another scheduled at Kendal at Ithaca for Thursday, December 22 at 3 p.m. The Kendal event is open to the public and will include remarks about the history of Sage Hall by the authors.

“I sent it to a book marketer,” Cleland said. “It went out at the end of November. In order to be in Barnes & Noble it needs to be written up in a trade magazine.”

Cleland’s early chapters on the history of coeducation at Cornell caught the attention of Mary Bronfenbrenner, a lecturer at Tompkins Cortland Community College, who has used the story to illustrate the early days of a feminist struggle that many college students now take for granted.

“A neurobiology professor that I know told me that I should add an index to the second edition,” Cleland smiled. “He said, ‘You know we academics love our citations.’”