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The history of Barton Hall

For many modern Cornellians, memories of Barton Hall are pretty standard: hundreds upon hundreds of students piled into this hot, sweaty, uncomfortable space to take an exam–it’s practically tradition. Military banners, Ivy League flags, and sports histories adorn the walls and rafters, and the mark of “CORNELL UNIVERSITY” is clearly visible through the large glass windows.

The first mention of this space with its current name was on January 23, 1940, when the Cornell Daily Sun announced that “…the headquarters of the Department of Science and Tactics at Cornell University, which since 1918 has been known as the Drill Hall, will henceforth be called Barton Hall in honor of Colonel Frank A. Barton”. The article went on to list the accomplishments of the building’s namesake, stating that he “…graduated from the College of Mechanical Engineering in 1891. Upon graduation, he was commissioned in the Regular Army as a second lieutenant. He served in… the Spanish-American War and on the Mexican Border in the Mobilization of 1916… [He] was a Professor of Military Science here from 1904 to 1908 and again from 1917 to 1921” (Daily Sun).

It made sense that this was the original intention for a building that even to modern observers looks to be for military purposes. The original intended cost of the building was approximately $20,000 in 1882, which is about $480,000 in 2014 dollars. It was also, according to the Sun at the time, intended “… as a hall for holding Commencement exercises and for other gatherings of like nature” (Daily Sun, May 3, 1882). Never was sport a consideration.

Rare and Manuscript Division/Cornell Library

Rare and Manuscript Division/Cornell Library

Work on the hall began incredibly slowly. Even though plans for the hall were announced in that 1882 article, construction did not begin until 1914 (Oh, how little has changed!). In October of 1916, the Sun published the following:

“Much still remains to be done on the new Drill Hall. The outer construction is nearly completed with the exception of the north tower… but the interior is far from being ready to use… the Armory will be fitted with a wooden floor and if this is done, the work will be delayed longer” (Daily Sun, October 9, 1916).

Work on the site continued until the summer of 1917, and the final cost rose to $350,000 ($6.5 million in 2015 dollars, for those wondering again). At the time of completion it was the largest University armory in the nation, and the War Department quickly took advantage of that once World War I began. Even though the ROTC was supposed to use the building exclusively, it instead was used for aviation students in the fall of 1917.

The aeronautics school lasted until the end of the war, and Barton himself used the space as a headquarters. Students were housed, took their exams, and tended to their planes in this space until the Armistice in November of 1918.

After the war, sport finally came into the picture. In 1920 the University added 500 seats–specifically for basketball games–and it would continue to be the home of Cornell Basketball until 1990. That wasn’t the only sport, though. Between World War I and World War II, it was incredibly common to see a track meet, a wrestling match, a basketball game, or a rifling tournament.


Daily Sun, 4 February 1944

During World War II, the space wasn’t the hangar it was during the last war, but it still served a military purpose. From 1941 to 1945, the Hall doubled as athletic facility and ROTC armory; there were also War Loan drives, military balls, and rifle exhibitions. Ithaca is ~4,000 miles from Berlin and ~6,500 miles from Tokyo, but it too felt the effects of war. Over 500 Cornellians would die in that conflict.

In post-war Ithaca, Barton Hall continued to fulfill its military and athletic purpose. The facility continued to be used for Cornell Basketball, rifling, wrestling, and track, but its usage slightly changed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. One of the most important features of this time was that of counter-culture, and this post-war generation indeed separated itself from that of previous wartime generations.

The landmark year was that of 1969. After the University suspended African-American students for protesting the lack of an Africana Studies program, they took action. They took over Williard Straight Hall–while armed–during Parents Weekend on April 19th, and they took over Barton Hall on April 22nd; they then established the Barton Hall Community, an organization that debated “…about racism, power, and governance of the university.” These protests ultimately led to the creation of the Africana Studies program, as well as the Ujamaa Residential College. The University also addressed cross burnings on campus, and committed itself to fair justice and protection for African-American students. Just as Barton Hall was part of two world wars, it was also part of the war for civil rights.

It was also in the middle of antiwar sentiments surrounding the Vietnam War. Barton Hall in many regards represented the military establishment, it (along with Day Hall) became a target for protesters. In May of 1972, a protest that began at Day Hall extended to Barton, and a student named James R. Bean threw a rock through the glass panes. He was charged with first degree rioting, but he was acquitted after a four day trial.

Into the 1970’s and 1980’s, Barton Hall also became a hub for music. Even though it is the most unlikely building for musical performances, Barton Hall has hosted several famous acts: the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Boston, Elton John, B.B. King, No Doubt, and Maroon 5. If one were to ask the Cornell Concert Commission in the 1980’s if they thought this venue would persist in its use, they probably wouldn’t think so. In 1980, the Sun wrote the following:

“While ‘everybody hates Barton Hall’, these concerts are the CCC’s only hope for making money to fuel shows for the next semester… But even with Scher’s professional backing, the CCC still has difficulties filling the acoustically unsound hall with the 6,000 bodies needed to break even…” (Cornell Daily Sun, December 5, 1980).

But, the venue has endured. One of the most iconic concerts in its history was the Grateful Dead’s Barton Hall concert on May 8, 1977. Many consider it to be the band’s greatest live show, and according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame blog, it probably was:

“But even naysayers admit that Cornell ’77 stands as an amazing performance in a historic tour. Nor has that consensus changed over the years. In surveys conducted by fanzine Dupree’s Diamond News and DeadBase, fans consistently chose Cornell ’77 as their favorite recording; as recently as 2009, a New York Times survey ranked it overwhelmingly the favorite of four highly regarded shows, giving it more than twice the votes of the runner-up, the highly regarded pair of shows at the Fillmore East on February 13 and 14, 1970. [Archivist Dick] Latvala did not revisit his notebook when the soundboard surfaced, but in 1983 he did. Nearly six years after he penned his first impression, he followed up with a brief note: ‘Enough can’t be said about this superb show’. He was right.”

The history after that was relatively nondescript. The ROTC continued (and, still does) to house facilities for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and a variety of sporting events and practices were held in the space.

From 2009 to 2011 Barton hall underwent an $8 million renovation so the University could replace doors and windows, as well as rework the foundation that was nearly 100 years old. Today you’ll probably see Barton Hall as an exhibition space, or a practice space, or a space for large events. The winter graduation is there, as well as rained out May graduations. There are Clubfests and career fairs, and events for incoming freshman during Orientation Week. It’s not the same hub of athletic life it once was, but it’s still an important building on campus. The next time you take an exam in what looks like a dusty, old gymnasium, realize that there is 100 years of history everywhere.


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