McGraw Hall: Restoring a Treasured Icon

Artist rendering of the renovated McGraw Hall

A part of the foundation of Cornell

McGraw Hall was named for founding trustee John McGraw, who gave $120,000 for construction of the building.

McGraw was a self-made millionaire lumber mogul with a deep reverence for classical education, though he himself never received one. Instead, he committed to realizing this dream for his daughter, Jennie, by sending her on a grand tour of Europe starting in 1859.

McGraw Hall was designed by architect Archimedes N. Russell and opened in 1872 as one of the three original “stone row” buildings on the west side of the Arts Quad.

An old black-and-white image of McGraw Hall

Built of Ithaca stone, the four-story building was the first on campus to include a tower. Jennie McGraw donated the chimes to be placed in the tower, where they stayed until McGraw Tower was built in 1891.

A cornerstone of research and knowledge

McGraw Hall was the original location of the university library, until the construction of Uris Library (what was then called the University Library) in 1892. McGraw also at one time housed the university museum, the Wilder Brain Collection, the Plaster Cast Collection, the Lab of Ornithology, the geology department, the law school, the insect collection and the country’s first entomology department, among other departments. The department of government was located in McGraw Hall from 1972 to 2003, when it moved to White Hall.

Today, the building is home to the departments of history and anthropology and the college’s archaeology program.

Anthropology collections in McGraw Hall

Renovating a symbol of Cornell

The College of Arts and Sciences has embarked upon a $110 million transformation of McGraw Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus.

With several Cornell families pledging more than $40 million in foundational gifts to enable the comprehensive renovation, design work has already begun and construction is expected to be completed by 2028.

McGraw Hall fundraising goals
$43 of $45M has been raised toward the total construction budget of $#110M.

The McGraw Hall renovation project will include an overhaul of the interior structure and layout, as well as an update to building systems and work to preserve and bolster the exterior façade.

The structure needs major renovations to function as an effective space for research and teaching, with contemporary classrooms, labs and offices.

McGraw Hall renovation timeline

Timelines for McGraw hall renovation

At John McGraw’s memorial (1877), the tribute referred to the building’s ‘severe beauty’ and ‘solid and massive elegance,’ which the memorialists thought reflected ‘the grander qualities’ of McGraw’s own nature and, presumably, of Cornell’s as well. Piecemeal renovations beginning in the 19th century have nibbled away at the original unity of the building’s design without helping it withstand the ravages of Ithaca’s weather. It is high time to restore McGraw Hall to its former place as the center of the Arts Quad and the symbol of Cornell that it was designed to be.

-Isabel Hull, the John Stambaugh Professor of History Emerita