HISTORY OF THE A.D. WHITE HOUSE
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Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s first president and co-founder, had his Victorian villa built for his use as president of the university in 1871. He announced at the time that he would spend $50,000 on the house and would give it to the university for future presidents to use after he retired. Architects William Henry Miller and Charles Babcock designed the house in the Second Empire style. In June of 1874, A.D. White and his wife, Mary Outwater White, along with their four children moved from Syracuse into the house.
An old newspaper clipping reports that the balcony floor above the vestibule of the villa was “of Cleveland stone, weighing over two tons,” and that it supported a “balustrade of twenty small stone pillars, no two of which are carved similar.” The balcony served as more than “an elegant frontispiece to the dwelling,” for White used to address victorious crews from the balcony upon their return to Ithaca, and on several occasions stood upon it to acknowledge serenading students who came to welcome him back after his frequent absences.
After passing through the small vestibule, visitors enter a broad, forty-two foot central hallway, which is open to the ceiling of the second floor hallway through a central balustrade “well hole.” At the rear of the hall is a gently rising stairway with rail and balusters leading up from a walnut newel. The staircase is particularly inviting to children and, indeed, White’s granddaughter, Pricilla Ferry, recalled that she “used to slide down the banister and land on a big white polar bear rug.” The heavily carved sideboard may be a seventeenth century German piece that White mentioned in an early will; it appears in photographs of his St. Petersburg dining room.
The large parlor to the left of the front door, now called the Andrew D. White Room (Room 110) served as a music room. This room was the formal living room during the early years, and the weddings of White’s daughters, Clara and Ruth, took place here against the background of the bay window garlanded with vines and roses.
Directly across the hall is a smaller parlor, originally called the morning room, which served the White family as an informal family room. It has been named the Bullis Room (Room 109) in honor of Mr. Gardner Bullis 1908.
The doors between the morning room and the former library may be closed for privacy or opened to form an archway between the two rooms. The library is now called the Guerlac Room, in honor of Henry Guerlac, Director of the Society for the Humanities (1970 – 1977). Guerlac was instrumental in saving the A.D. White House from destruction in the 1970s by applying for and receiving National Historical Registry status for the building. Under his direction, the restoration of the building and the acquisition of the furniture were accomplished through many contributions.
In 1912, when the addition was made to the south end of the house, including a first floor secretary’s office, White ordered copies of the crests of various colleges with which he had been associated, including Hobart and St. Andrews, to decorate the windows of his new den. The den has served Cornell Presidents as a useful sanctuary.
Opening from an east door of the living room is the conservatory. Built in the angle between the old library and the dining room, it affords a fine view of the gardens at the rear of the house. Pricilla Ferry once recalled “the fountain in the conservatory tinkling away and perfumes from the flowers making every meal elegant and festive.” In 1989, the Class of 1952 donated funds to restore the conservatory to its original splendor and maintain it with plants and orchids.
Photographs of the original dining room show simple light walls with a dado and a handsome ceiling patterned with a lacing of walnut moldings and turned pendants. The only piece of furniture that survives from the original dining room is the small folding serving table with spiral legs, the gift of Mr. Courtney Crawford, Law 1954. The studded leather chairs of that time have been replaced by a set of more elaborately carved chairs found in Seneca County for the House by Mr. Jay Cantor 1964, an art historian and preservationist who served as artistic director during the renovation of the House.
The present dining room was installed at the behest of President Malott in 1953 under the supervision of another Cornellian, Mr. Searle von Storch, Architecture 1923. This reconstructed dining room was originally part of the New York City home of Peter Cooper, the 19th century industrialist. The dining room was constructed after Peter Cooper’s death in 1883 when Stanford White remodeled the entire house at the request of Cooper’s daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Abram S. Hewitt. The elaborately hand-carved oak wall and door paneling is Flemish, inscribed with the date “1655.” The allegorical mural incorporated into the woodwork is 17th or 18th century and came from the Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. The ceiling is Moorish and later in date than the paneling. The dining room was renamed the Martin Room in 2008 in honor of former Provost Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, who was also a Society for the Humanities fellow.
The gardens to the east of the House have gone through periods of splendor and of relative neglect. Little was done in the early years, but White’s second wife was an enthusiastic gardener and employed a full-time gardener for many years. The gardens were further developed during the presidency of Livingston Farrand and his popular wife, Daisy.
Besides White and Farrand, only one other Cornell president lived in the house, Edmund Ezra Day, who headed the University from 1938 until 1949. The mansion served from 1953 to 1973 as the University Art Museum.
The present use of White’s old mansion, on what Willard Fiske called Breezy Knoll, is now the fitting home of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. White’s plan for awarding fellowships at Cornell, although included in his early drafts, was not put into effect until funds became available in 1884-85. White was closely associated with President Gilman of Johns Hopkins University, a newly founded institution oriented toward graduate study and research, and he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Leland Stanford and his wife to establish an extensive national program of scholarships and fellowships instead of founding a university.
By restoring the home-like character of the first floor rooms, the Society for the Humanities has created a welcoming background for fellowship programs, university lectures, seminars, conferences, luncheons, receptions, and dinners. The two front rooms are used during the academic year as classrooms. During the summer, the Andrew Dickson White House provides space for special programs, most recently the summer sessions of the School of Criticism and Theory. It is also widely known as a splendid facility for wedding ceremonies and receptions. Over the south wing of the building there is a combined seminar room/reference library used by Society Fellows. The many bedrooms on the second and third floors have been converted into studies that now house the Society Fellows, the Director of the Society and administrative staff.