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Cornell Heights Historic District


Tri-delta Fraternity House, Cornell Heights Historic District, 118 Triphammer Road, Ithaca, NY, National Register

Photo: Tri-delta Fraternity House, Cornell Heights Historic District, 118 Triphammer Road, Ithaca, NY. The historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Photographed by user:Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD, 2008, (own work) [cc-by-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed January, 2015.

The Cornell Heights Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Cornell Heights Historic District is an early 20th century planned residential subdivision situated along the northern rim of Fall Creek gorge opposite Cornell University in the small Tompkins County city of Ithaca, New York. A small portion of the Cornell Heights Historic District falls outside the city boundary in the village of Cayuga Heights. The entire .28 square mile area sits on a high plateau overlooking the city of Ithaca and the southern end of Cayuga Lake. The subdivision was laid out in two phases according to a curvilinear street plan under the direction of a landscape architect. Most of the original street plan, lavish foliage, and some early landscape features still exist within the district. The area was initially conceived as a "residence park" for faculty members of Cornell University, and its promoters hoped to attract other Ithaca businessmen and professionals as well. Cornell Heights evolved in this fashion and remains predominantly residential in character today. For the most part, homes were erected between the years 1898 and 1942. Many were architect designed or individualized products of local contractors and do not exhibit the mass standardization so typical of many turn-of-the-century suburbs. The degree of architectural integrity within the Cornell Heights Historic District at this time is high and the original intended "high-class" suburban character of the district remains intact despite the influx of large numbers of students seeking housing and development pressures from Cornell University itself.

There are 209 contributing components within the Cornell Heights Historic District including: 154 principal buildings, 54 outbuildings and the original street plan and existing landscape features (208 buildings, 1 site). There are 24 non-contributing components within the Cornell Heights Historic District, including 12 principal buildings and 12 outbuildings. Of a total of 166 principal buildings, 125 are located within the city of Ithaca while 41 come under the political jurisdiction of the Village of Cayuga Heights. This occurs because the Ithaca city line intersects the district in a straight line drawn directly east and west from the intersection of Highland Avenue and Wyckoff Avenue.

Landscaping

The entire Cornell Heights Historic District is lavishly planted with spruce trees and other conifers as well as maples, oaks, box elders, some birch trees, and flowering dogwoods. Landscaping is generally informal and confined to private parcels; although, Westbourne Lane, for instance, is lined on either side by a row of fully matured shade trees. The Cornell Heights Historic District becomes heavily wooded west of Highland Avenue and there are not only fully grown conifer and shade trees but abundant clusters of spring wildflowers along most roadways. Formal landscaping features that date to the early development of the subdivision include stone retaining walls and small segments of fieldstone walls decorating individual properties. A huge stone wall along the east side of Stewart Avenue at the foot of The Knoll probably dates to construction of trolley lines through Cornell Heights in 1899. Remnants of the track bed of the Cornell Heights round trip "loop" are still discernible along the upper edge of The Knoll above Thurston Avenue. An attractive stone wall also terraces down Fall Creek Drive (from the east) protecting pedestrians and motorists from the precipitous drop to the foot of the gorge. Architecture

Buildings in Cornell Heights date primarily from the years 1898 to 1935. Slightly less than half of the buildings in the Cornell Heights Historic District were erected prior to 1915. The remainder date to the late teens, the 1920's and 1930's with only ten buildings constructed since World War II. The predominant building material present throughout the Cornell Heights Historic District is stucco although many of the earlier buildings erected prior to 1910 feature a combination of clapboard on first floors and coursed wood shingles on upper floors and in gables and dormers. Perhaps the most frequently employed combination of materials is stucco and shingle. Brick is much less frequently evident throughout the district. It is confined mostly to the large Tudor Revival fraternity houses or small, private Tudor Revival homes built in the 1920's and 1930's (for example: 305 and 534 Thurston Avenue, 118 Triphammer Road, and 520 Wyckoff Road). The use of rough-cut stone and random-coursed ashlar is also infrequent and seen most often on landmark homes or fraternity houses on Ridgewood Road and The Knoll.

Buildings in the Cornell Heights Historic District vary widely in terms of scale and degree of architectural embellishment. Tiny one or one and one-half story simple homes for instance, at 215 Kelvin Place and 512 Wyckoff Road offer a striking contrast to the grand architect designed homes at 106, 111, and 119 The Knoll. Most of the residences in the Cornell Heights Historic District fall within the middle range, however, but are notable for the absence of standardized designs. Many individualized designs, in fact, were created by prominent local architects or by Cornell University faculty in the Colleges of Architecture and Civil Engineering.

A broad range of early-20th century architectural styles is represented in the Cornell Heights Historic District. There is considerable reference to the eclecticism of the era in several instances where features of widely divergent styles appear on the same building. One example is found at 212 Fall Creek Drive with its double-pitched, mansard-like roof, Prairie style windows, and Craftsman inspired entry porch. Purer examples of individual styles, however, tend to predominate here. Those styles most often featured include the Colonial Revival, Craftsman, and Tudor Revival. The influence of the Prairie style is also evident but on a much smaller scale and is most often limited to the application of low hipped roofs and hipped dormers with wide, overhanging closed eaves and, occasionally, porches with massive piers (for example: 201 Highland Avenue; 106 Overlook Road is a less typical, one-story example featuring some Colonial Revival detail). More typical local interpretations of the Prairie style are found along Kelvin Place and Dearborn Place. These houses, although not strictly Foursquare in type, are distinctly more symmetrical and restrained in their massing. The best examples appear at 115 and 207 Kelvin Place and 213 Dearborn Place. A few of these houses also exhibit strong secondary influences of the Mission or Mediterranean styles with the application of red tile roofs; for instance, 120 Heights Court.

The overall integrity of buildings in the Cornell Heights Historic District remains high. Few structures have undergone major changes. The exceptions include a few former residences that have been converted into fraternity or sorority houses with the addition of incompatible modern wings (for example: 126 Westbourne Lane, 115 Ridgewood Road, and 214 Thurston Avenue). Only a few buildings have been carefully covered with aluminum siding, for instance at 203 and 435 Wyckoff Road and 40 Ridgewood Road. The Cornell Heights Historic District's original street plan, as well, remains intact except for the straightening of Fall Creek Drive at its intersection with Thurston Avenue and the creation of Sisson Place off Triphammer Road. Hundreds of trees and shrubs have grown to full maturity since being planted or transplanted at the turn of the century. Lavish foliage, an undisturbed street plan, a high degree of architectural integrity and continued service to Cornell University faculty combine to perpetuate the early-20th century flavor of this historic district.

Significance

The Cornell Heights Historic District is architecturally and historically significant as an exceptional, intact example of a turn-of-the-century planned residential suburban development. Placed in an outstanding natural setting along the northern rim of Fall Creek gorge, overlooking the city of Ithaca and the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, the Cornell Heights Historic District's curvilinear street plan, lavish landscape features, dramatic geographical setting, strictly residential character (developed in large private lots), and its historical pattern of development place it within the romantic tradition of the "ideal" residence park developed in the second half of the 19th century and popularized by Frederick Law Olmsted after the Civil War. This idea gained its greatest momentum in the period after World War I, as the upper middle class sought to retreat from the pressures of the modern industrial city. The pattern of development here, distinguished by an association with a single land company that employed the services of a landscape architect (William Webster of Rochester) and financed virtually every aspect of physical improvement in the subdivision, though not unique, was unusual in an era in which trolley suburbs along the barren fringes of large cities were being mass produced on rectilinear street plans by hundreds of speculators, contractors, and private property owners. Cornell Heights was promoted by its owners as a high-class residential suburb and it evolved in that fashion. Homes, both modest and grand, were erected here between the years 1898 and 1942. They were all built to individualized designs and several represent the work of Ithaca's foremost turn-of-the-century architects, including William H. Miller, Clarence Martin, and Clinton Vivian. A further dimension of significance stems from the intimate relationship between Cornell Heights and Cornell University. The primary impetus toward development of the suburb is found in Cornell University's major expansion around the turn of the century, a program that had a tremendous effect on the small village of Ithaca, sparking its growth into its present size and character. At its inception, Cornell Heights was considered an "addition" or suburb of Cornell University itself and it became the home of many of the university's professors and students. Some of the leading figures in the early-twentieth century history of the university resided in Cornell Heights and faculty members of national and international renown continue to make Cornell Heights their home today. Retaining a high level of integrity, the Cornell Heights Historic District illustrates an important aspect of American planning and recalls a significant period in the history of Ithaca.

Cornell Heights was the culmination of a speculative real estate venture undertaken by a small group of Ithaca professional and businessmen shortly before the turn of the century. In 1897 Herman Bergholtz, DeForrest Van Vleet and Edward G. Wyckoff organized the Cornell Heights Land Company with the express purpose of developing into an exclusive suburb a seventy-five acre tract of land they had purchased the previous year along the northern rim of Fall Creek gorge. Bergholtz, an electrical engineer and part owner in the Ithaca Street Railway and Lighting Company, and Van Vleet, attorney for the Railway and Lighting Company, served the Cornell Heights Land Company only as secondary partners. Wyckoff, who had inherited a fortune from his father's lucrative international typewriter business (Remington Typewriter Company), proved the major force behind the ultimate development of the "Heights." Edward Wyckoff had established himself as an independent businessman in his own right following his father's death in 1895. Among his major investments were the Remington Salt Company, the Booth Hyomei Company (makers of respiratory medicines), the Cornell Incubator Company, and the Wyckoff Lumber and Manufacturing Company. However, during the years 1896 to 1915, Wyckoff focused himself most intently on his real estate ventures and, in particular, on the development of Cornell Heights into what he hoped would become a high-class residential suburb. Wyckoff was best remembered for this accomplishment at the time of his death in 1924.

In the spring of 1896 roadways and building sites were mapped out for Cornell Heights by Rochester landscape architect William Webster. In keeping with the investors' concept of a "residence park," Webster established a plan of curvilinear streets which were to follow generally the contour of the land and take optimum advantage of the area's natural beauty. Along these winding streets, loop drives, and cul-de-sacs, Webster plotted one hundred building sites. The new subdivision was entirely within the city of Ithaca at this time but was to be extended somewhat into the village of Cayuga Heights just after the turn of the century.

Little information is available on William Webster. A professional architect as well as landscape architect, Webster practiced in Rochester for over forty years. He died in that city at the age of 93 on March 7, 1911. Webster had come to Ithaca for other assignments, including improvements to Lakeview Cemetery and Renwick Park (now Stewart Park). Other than the street plan, however, his specific recommendations for a general landscaping scheme for Cornell Heights do not survive.

The development of Cornell Heights was strictly a private venture — private property being improved by private enterprise and private money. Citizens of Ithaca were not taxed for improvements here nor did the city contribute to the upgrading of this residential suburb. It was not until 1903 that the area was annexed to the city and that the municipal government took responsibility for public thoroughfares in Cornell Heights. Before this time, the Cornell Heights Land Company, and Edward G. Wyckoff specifically, undertook the expense of all improvements. The company graded and paved all streets (with gravel or shale), dug storm sewers, ran electrical lines to all homes and provided street lighting. Hydrants were set up in several places throughout the district and water was provided to all residences from a huge water tower (25 feet in diameter and 30 feet high) above an artesian well at the eastern edge of the district.

Additionally, Cornell Heights was isolated from the rest of the city by Fall Creek and the 200 foot gorge created by its cascading waterfalls. In order to make the Cornell Heights Historic District accessible and the development of the subdivision viable, bridges had to be built across the gorge and trolley lines extended into the district. This was no mean task. Bergholtz's controlling stock in the Ithaca Street Railway Company, later purchased by Edward Wyckoff, assured trolley service to the Heights; but regular service was not to be feasible until the completion of two deck bridges that would allow for round trip loop service through the Heights to downtown Ithaca.

In the summer of 1897 the Groton Bridge Company began construction of Cornell Heights's first bridge. Now known as the Triphammer Bridge (located outside the district, connecting the Cornell University campus with Thurston Avenue, in an area that no longer retains integrity), the structure spanned 200 feet across the gorge with massive symmetrical arches rising more than 120 feet above Fall Creek. Edward Wyckoff and the Cornell Heights Land Company assumed the full expense of $9,000 for construction of the bridge. A second Heights bridge across the gorge at Stewart Avenue (somewhat less expansive and elaborate) was completed in 1899 by the Owego Bridge Company, a subsidiary of the Groton works that eventually became the American Bridge Company and moved its operations to Brooklyn. The current Stewart Avenue Bridge is a modern replacement and is excluded from the Cornell Heights Historic District. The first round-trip trolly ride to Cornell Heights took place on 28 July 1899 subsequent to completion of this bridge. Trains ran across the Triphammer Bridge along Thurston Avenue making a loop around The Knoll and returning to downtown Ithaca via the new bridge (then known as Cornell Heights Bridge).

Edward Wyckoff envisioned Cornell Heights as a high class and exclusive suburb, physically isolated from the vagaries of town life. He and other members of the Cornell Heights Land Company (later expanded and incorporated as the Cornell Heights Improvement Company) wished to attract to their subdivision the very respectable faculty members of Cornell University as well as the city's upper class businessmen and professionals. Some company members even went so far as to solicit interest in the neighborhood from prospective new residents such as an inquiry in a letter from Jared Newman (active member of the land company after 1901) to H.H. Westinghouse who, word had it, was planning to make Ithaca his permanent address.

The idea of the suburb as an exclusive haven for the wealthy was an outgrowth of the romantic anti-urban movement that developed in the second half of the 19th century. The movement was epitomized by the creation of high class suburbs such as Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey (1852-1869(, a development based on ideas advanced by Andrew Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing, and Frederick Law Olmsted's noted Riverside subdivision in Chicago (1869).

As a planned residential development, Cornell Heights had many of the ingredients essential for the "ideal" residence park as developed and popularized by Olmsted and his contemporaries. In harmony with Olmsted's viewpoint, for instance, the street plan for Cornell Heights was designed with generous spaces and gracefully curved lines. Although there were eventually to be some streets lined with small lots and buildings placed only a few yards apart, Cornell Heights, for the most part, had been designed as suburban neighborhood where each family abode would stand fifty or one hundred feet or more apart from all others and some distance from the public road. The Heights was not far removed from the heart of the city and provided good roads and walks, adequate sewerage, a pure water supply, electricity to light the dark streets and low-cost rapid and comfortable transportation to the urban center. The only thing that this "ideal" suburb lacked was an organizing land form and a common or public area for playgrounds, public walks, or other kinds of communal activities. But the intellectual community of Cornell University perhaps provided an acceptable substitute.[]

Though based on precedents developed as early as the 1850's, the development of Cornell Heights was actually part of a trend toward suburbanization that had taken on mass proportions by the decade of the 1890's. It was a time of technological innovation, most notably development of the electric trolley, that made escape from the "wicked" city and "return to nature" a viable alternative for most classes.

This mass suburbanization at the fringes of older urban centers in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, however, generally followed a pattern of development much different than that of Cornell Heights. Most suburban subdivisions along the trolley lines that radiated outward from city centers were barren and flat. Most subdividers, for economy and efficiency, preferred to lay out gridirons rather than curving streets. These developers also undertook as little improvement as possible. Many residents, in fact had to pave their own streets or the rest of the city would be taxed for municipal services to these new areas and, as a consequence, in most cases there were very few public amenities. There is also a uniform aspect to most of these suburbs that is surprising, since most were the result of speculation by hundreds of investors, small contractors, and individual home owners rather than a single contractor or land company. Finally, these expansive new areas included not only private residences but small commercial centers, civic and religious buildings, and some minor public buildings such as post offices.

Though Cornell Heights was not unique in its development pattern in this period, it was unusual. This large residential section emerged from a single rural tract and was developed by a single group of investors who took complete responsibility for the provision of all services and public amenities. The completely private nature of the venture allowed for the creation of a curvilinear street plan rather than the gridiron system that might have been imposed by municipal authorities. And, foreshadowing patterns of more exclusive suburban developments of the 1920's and 1930's, Cornell Heights was entirely homogeneous and residential in character with investors using deed restrictions to ensure as much as possible the perpetuation of this homogeneity in future generations.

Edward Wyckoff and directors of the Cornell Heights Land Company undertook development of this suburban district at a time when Cornell University was undergoing major expansion. Changes on the Cornell campus at the turn of the century had a direct effect on the successful development of Cornell Heights and, from the first, this "residence park" was actually promoted as an "extension" or "suburb" of the campus itself. The interrelationship between the university and the Heights was evinced in many ways as, for instance, in the naming of streets in the district after prominent Cornell faculty and in the large number of building lots within the original subdivision sold directly to university professors. Cornell University faculty and administrative personnel, as well, have constituted the single largest population in the Cornell Heights subdivision since its inception.

The major changes at Cornell University which were to hasten the development of Cornell Heights and other suburban subdivisions in and around Ithaca began in the decade of the 1890's. In the years just prior to the turn of the century, the university enrollment and physical plant were growing steadily. The professional schools of law and medicine were established and Sibley College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering doubled in area under vigorous new programs introduced by its director, Robert H. Thurston. Decidedly more dramatic changes occurred, however, after the turn of the century with New York State's decision to locate the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell. The ensuing expansion resulted in one of the largest building booms in Cornell's history. In 1903, a $250,000 state appropriation for the Agricultural College resulted in the construction of several new major academic buildings which were to be completed before World War I. This new construction extended the campus eastward and displaced many faculty members whose homes had been situated along East Avenue. Many of those displaced moved directly into Cornell Heights.

After the turn of the century, statistical growth of the campus was as spectacular as its physical transformation. By 1915 more than 5,000 students attended Cornell on a full time basis making it the second largest university in America. Between 1902 and 1913, student enrollment in the College of Agriculture alone grew ten-fold from 114 to 1,263; faculty members increased nearly fifteen times from 9 to 129; and the number of courses offered grew from 25 to 224. Growth of the College of Agriculture affected, in particular, the number of women enrolled at Cornell, most of them in the new home economics curriculum. As a result of these changes, housing shortages for women students became acute. The placing of Prudence Risley Hall (a dormitory for women designed by William H. Miller) immediately across the Triphammer Bridge on Thurston Avenue about 1911 established a pattern for the location of women's residence halls at Cornell for the following fifty years. The location of Risley Hall here was also to herald a dramatic transformation of this southeast sector of the Cornell Heights neighborhood (excluded from the district due to the resulting change in character).

Anticipating a growing market for new residential building lots by university faculty and personnel even before the Agricultural College expansion was underway, the Cornell Heights Land Company purchased an additional 100 acres of land in 1901 and expanded the Cornell Heights residence park northward outside city boundaries into what was to become the village of Cayuga Heights. New directors were added to the Land Company at this time. Bergholtz and Van Vleet left the company but Edward G. Wyckoff remained president. New members included attorneys and law partners Jared T. Newman and Charles Blood and Cornell University professors John Tanner and Charles Hull. On 28 March 1902, the group incorporated themselves as the "Cornell Heights Improvement Company," believing that corporate status, rather than individual ownership, would advance development and property sales more quickly. Edward Wyckoff remained the major partner, acquiring 248 of the company's 250 shares.

At the time of the new land purchase, the Cornell Heights Improvement Company leased forty-four acres of its new property to the Ithaca Country Club. This rather sizeable tract was used by the club for its new golf links, which in part extended on to land along present-day Dearborn Place, Brook Lane, and Wyckoff Road. The country club's lease was revoked the next year, however, following publicity about the proposed campus expansion and the land used by the fledgling golf club was laid out into streets, subdivided, and sold to future home owners. The golf club, however, still retained a large tract in the northeast section of the subdivision which remained undeveloped until at least the mid-twentieth century.

The Cornell Heights "extension" first appeared on a 1903 map of the Heights. This map shows the opening of Triphammer Road, Dearborn Place, Kelvin Place and Brook Lane to the northeast and the extension of Ridgewood Road and Cayuga Heights Road as well as the opening of Wyckoff Avenue, Overlook Road, and Westbourne Lane to the northwest. (The Cornell Heights subdivision now included 151 building lots.) Though it is probable that the company hired a landscape architect to subdivide the new area, there is no information available to support this. The varied topography of the new area was such, however, that streets tended to follow the terrain more closely than streets in the original subdivision.

Fifty thousand dollars was immediately set aside by the company for improvements in the new "extension." Gravel roadways were opened throughout the Cornell Heights Historic District and two miles of flagstone sidewalks laid at a cost of more than $10,000. Perhaps because of the financial burden of these new improvements, in April 1903 the Cornell Heights Improvement Company petitioned the city to annex the Heights. The proposal was approved by the Common Council at that time and from this point forward all streets in Cornell Heights within city limits were to become public thoroughfares and their improvement the responsibility of the city corporation. Streets outside city limits continued to be maintained by the developers.

Cornell Heights began its final transformation into a "high grade suburb" over the next five to six years. By 1906 the local papers were calling the Heights the "finest residential section in Central New York." Real estate had doubled, trebled, and even quadrupled since the first lots were sold in 1899. By January 1, 1908 only thirty-eight lots from the original 100 were left unsold. Landscaping and planting of the area continued and some Cornell faculty undertook extravagant improvement of their lots. Professor George Atkinson, the head of the Department of Botany at Cornell University, for example, planted nearly 10,000 trees and shrubs over a number of years in a "wild garden" at the head of a steep terrace on Ridgewood Road that sloped down toward Cayuga Lake. Atkinson later built a home on the lot (since demolished) and many of the Cornell Heights Historic District's most outstanding buildings are today located along this roadway.

Construction of homes in Cornell Heights began slowly, with only twenty houses having been erected in the years between 1899 and 1903. However, keeping pace with the massive construction programs at Cornell University, several dozen homes were erected between 1903 and 1915. Nearly one-half of the buildings now located within the Cornell Heights Historic District were built by that time. The remainder of the original subdivision was gradually filled out in the decades before World War II.

The most prevalent architectural styles in the Cornell Heights Historic District are the Colonial Revival and the Craftsman. Colonial Revival designs spanned all decades from the 1890's through the 1930's and, as a consequence, are diverse in massing, symmetry and classical detailing. The Craftsman buildings, though also diverse, are constructed primarily of stucco or a combination of stucco and shingles or clapboard and have low-pitched gabled roofs with exposed or extended roof rafters. Many Craftsman residences feature the Tudor inspired false half-timbering in upper floors and there are a few which also exhibit secondary influences of the Swiss Chalet and Mission styles. Craftsman designs here seem to have run their course by the early years of the twentieth century. During the years 1905 to ca.1915, local interpretations of the Prairie style appeared in the district. They vary in massing and material but all have deep, closed eaves overhanging wall services, dormers also with extended eaves, ribbons of casement or double-hung windows, and some front or side porches with porch supports resting on massive piers. The Tudor Revival vied with the Colonial Revival in the years after 1915 and some of the Cornell Heights Historic District's small suburban residences and large fraternity houses from the 1920's and 1930's were executed in this style. Though some exhibit Continental influences with their jerkin-headed gables, most are of the English Tudor Revival school and feature multiple steep-pitched gables and, frequently, varied use of materials.

Today a large number of Cornell University students reside in the Cornell Heights neighborhood in apartment buildings, subdivided single-family houses, co-ops, and fraternity and sorority houses. Edward Wyckoff and his partners in the Cornell Heights Improvement Company did not originally intend to embrace this student population but, rather, to exclude it. Wyckoff himself had envisioned a "placid family-oriented residential suburb without the encroachment of commercial interests or students." He hoped that certain deed restrictions would ensure against such an eventuality. But even as Cornell Heights was just beginning to develop in the first decade of the twentieth century, plans to place female residence halls within the subdivision were being formulated and the entire southeast quadrant of the district was subsequently taken up with huge women's dormitories over the next few decades. Sorority houses were also built in the Heights or properties leased for such purposes after the turn of the century.

Sorority houses were fewer in number by far, however, than men's fraternities. In consequence of an early administrative decision by Cornell President Andrew D. White that the university not provide dormitory facilities for men at Cornell, the number of fraternities established at Cornell was exceptional. The Albany Argus, in a special illustrated supplement on Cornell fraternities in June of 1899, commented that: "Probably at no college or university in the country are Greek letter fraternities more numerous than at Cornell, numbering with the 'sororities' about thirty." Most of the fraternities at Cornell were domiciled at this time and would continue to be located in houses of their own, many of which the Argus noted were expensive and beautiful residences.

Despite Edward Wyckoff's concerted efforts to keep fraternities out of Cornell Heights, he could not stop property owners in the neighborhood from selling or leasing their homes to these groups. The first such sale came early. In 1906 Frank S. Peer deeded his home at 214 Thurston Avenue to the Alpha Zeta fraternity (the longest tenured fraternity in the district). Peer's decision began a major trend in the district in which even Edward G. Wyckoff played a part when, in 1915, he resigned himself to the changing times and sold his beautiful home on Thurston Avenue to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. By 1910 there were at least five fraternities and sororities located in Cornell Heights and by 1920 that number had reached twenty-three. The number of fraternities remained relatively constant over the next several decades and today there are eighteen such organizations in the Cornell Heights Historic District.

Despite the large number of students, Cornell Heights is still largely a single-family residential district that continues to be occupied predominantly by Cornell University faculty. Their presence has added a further dimension of significance to the neighborhood. Many of the early residents here were major figures in the history of the university itself and, notably, important names in the expansion of the State Agricultural College at Cornell. The lifelong labors of James E. Rice in the field of poultry husbandry, for instance, are commemorated in Rice Hall. Rice lived for many years at 308 Wait Avenue. James G. Needham (105 Needham Place) came to Cornell in 1907 to give the first college course in Limnology and to create a department which became world-famous. George N. Lauman (504 Thurston Avenue) organized the first American course and department of rural, or agricultural, economics. In other fields, the study of psychology became an independent discipline at Cornell under the leadership of Edward B. Titchener who had lived for many yeas at 223 Thruston Avenue (now demolished). Gilbert D. Harris began the Paleontological Research Institute out of his home at 126 Kelvin Place and John Henry Comstock started his lucrative nature book publishing company, Comstock Publishers, at 126 Roberts Place in the early years of this century. Comstock deeded the company to the university at his death in 1931 and it was eventually absorbed into Cornell University Press, which still continues to operate from the Roberts Place address today. There are noted Nobel Prize winners associated with Cornell Heights as well. James B. Sumner, for instance, who lived at 119 Heights Court was a professor of biological chemistry at Cornell. Sumner first isolated and crystallized the enzyme in 1926 and later received the Nobel Prize in recognition of his achievement. Today [1989], another noted scientist, Carl Sagan, resides in the neighborhood at 900 Stewart Avenue.

Though not directly affiliated with the university, one of Cornell Heights's most noted residents was Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Fuertes is considered to be the foremost American illustrator of birds, surpassing even John James Audubon. Named after Louis Agassiz, the great naturalist of the nineteenth century, Fuertes was born in Ithaca in 1874. He graduated from the College of Architecture at Cornell in 1897 but rather than pursue an engineering career as his father had hoped, young Louis went on to study with Abbot Thayer. Fuertes returned to Ithaca and, after marrying, built a house at 504 Thurston Avenue (1904). In addition to illustrating numerous books, pamphlets and magazines, including several series in National Geographic, Fuertes prepared habitat groups for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and painted murals. He is best known for his series of plates entitled The Birds of New York (1910).

Other notable residents of Cornell Heights not affiliated with the university include dancer, Broadway actress, and silent film star Irene Castle. The movie industry had come to Ithaca in 1914. Wharton Brothers Productions set up a studio to film a college romance at Cornell. The company remained in Ithaca until 1919 filming other pictures. Irene Castle first came to Ithaca to film the silent movie "Patricia," a patriotic wartime serial. Her husband and dance partner, Vernon Castle, died in a plane crash in 1918 and the next year Irene Castle returned to Ithaca as the wife of Robert Treman, of a prominent local business family. They lived at the new Treman home "Greystone" at 106 Cayuga Heights Road.

The Cornell Heights Historic District is an exceptional, intact example of a turn-of-the-century planned residential community. Its uncompromised geographical setting, original street plan, surviving landscape features, and period architecture contribute to maintaining a sense of the historic past. Further, the Cornell Heights Historic District's long standing association with important figures from Cornell University and the city of Ithaca contribute to its continued historical importance.

Endnote

[†]These features of the "ideal" suburb have been paraphrased from Olmsted's report on Buffalo parks discussed in Albert Fein, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Environmental Tradition, (New York: George Braziller, 1972).

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Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Zellman, Michael D. American Art Analog. Vol. II. Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

  1. Kathleen LaFrank, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Cornell Heights Historic District, nomination document, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Cornell Heights Historic District Map

Street Names
Brook Lane • Cayuga Heights Road • Country Club Road • Dearborn Place • Edgecliff Place • Fall Creek Drive • Heights Court • Highland Avenue • Kelvin Place • Kline Road • Lodge Way • Needham Place • Overlook Road • Ridgewood Road • Roberts Place • Stewart Avenue • Stewart Road • Thurston Avenue • Triphammer Road • Wait Avenue • Westbourne Lane • Wyckoff Road

**Information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. You should independently verify any information you use for decision making.
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