MVR Hall with bunting
Posted
Jun 10, 2022
by
Staff
In College of Human Ecology, Human Centered Design

From its classic yellow Georgian Revival bricks to its futuristic multi-colored glass sculpture, Martha Van Rensselaer Hall (MVR) possesses a strong foundation that honors the past while blazing a path forward in research, industry and design. 

Today dignitaries from around the College of Human Ecology, the University and the state helped rededicate a “new” MVR Hall for a new era, celebrating the completion of nearly two decades of improvements that resulted in LEED Gold Certification — including a special inclusive design credit — a new open flow, and a building that showcases the interconnectedness of the Human Ecology community. 

Rachel Dunifon, Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, emceed the event held Friday afternoon in MVR’s sunny Belkin Courtyard and welcomed Cornell’s 14th President Martha E. Pollack

Ribbon cutting of MVR Hall

Dean Rachel Dunifon and President Martha E. Pollack cut the ribbon for the rededication of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall on June 10. They were joined on the steps by former Dean Alan Mathios, Director of Facilities and Operations Kristie Mahoney, and University, local and state dignitaries. Photo: Simon Wheeler for Cornell University

 

A worthy home

For a variety of reasons, President Pollack was in a celebratory mood Friday as she was both welcoming Cornell alumni back to campus for the first in-person reunion in two years and enjoying the long-awaited rededication of the “truly remarkable renovation of this historic Cornell building.”

From 1931 to 1933, MVR was specifically built “for a new college, one that sought to explore and elevate aspects of the human experience that had previously been excluded from academic study,” Pollack said of the then College of Home Economics. “It was a bold extension of our founding vision of ‘any person, any study.’”

 

All of…the work in this building will support and strengthen the distinction of the College and the University for many years to come. To all of you who were part of this tremendous endeavor, thank you — and congratulations.

Martha E. Pollack
President of Cornell University

Pollack called CHE’s “new” MVR Hall “a worthy home in which to celebrate its centennial and look ahead to its next century.”

The president thanked the Governor’s office and the State Legislature, and the University’s friends in the State University Construction Fund (SUCF) for recognizing the importance of the project and providing funding.

“True to HumEc’s mission and history, the entire process of planning and renovation was a human-centered one: providing an opportunity to put the human-centered design researched and taught in the college into practice.” 

Pollack said the project met and even exceeded sustainability goals in materials and technology and reduced the impact that the MVR construction had on the surrounding community.

All three phases of the renovation earned LEED GOLD certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, and this is also the first building on Cornell’s campus to receive the inclusive design innovation credit, thanks to a student team that led the application process.

woman speaking at a lectern with Cornell University seal

Dean Rachel Dunifon speaks while President Martha E. Pollack and Katherine McComas, vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs, look on. Photo: Simon Wheeler for Cornell University

 

Martha and Flora

Dean Dunifon took a few moments to remember another Martha, Martha Van Rensselaer herself. In 1900, Cornell hired her to create a program focused on education and scientific discovery for women, one that would complement the Agriculture College’s offerings for men.

“Shortly after her arrival, Martha realized there was a huge demand among the women of New York State for science-based information relevant to their daily lives.  One woman wrote to Martha: ‘I cannot tell you how much it means to me to think that somebody cares. My life is made up of men and mud...send me the bulletins and remember me in your prayers.” 

In 1911, Martha and Flora became the first full-time female faculty at Cornell. Over time, the educational programs evolved from a department to a school to a free-standing College of Home Economics, which was launched in 1925.

“As the college grew, so did its need for space.  Fortunately, Martha and Flora had friends in high places, including Eleanor Roosevelt,” Dunifon said.

Now in Human Ecology we carry on Martha’s legacy as we continue to meet the strenuous modern problems of today. We have retained historic elements from the 1933 building and used the opportunity of this renovation to develop new spaces that reflect our work today.

Rachel Dunifon
Dean of the College of Human Ecology

Originally NYS only allocated half of the $1 million needed to build MVR Hall, but Eleanor intervened and convinced her husband, Franklin, then New York Governor, to allocate the full amount. 

“Sadly, Martha died the year before this building was completed and never got to work here.  Eleanor Roosevelt honored Martha at the building’s dedication, calling this building ‘a fitting tribute to the work of a courageous and far-seeing woman.’”

 Also, at the dedication, Flora Rose linked the building to the College’s mission, saying, "As we lay the cornerstone of this great building, it is not its material expression in brick and stone and steel that I would have you consider. Rather its significance as a symbol of new and vital forces arising to meet strenuous modern problems." 

The two womens’ influence still shines. 

“Now in Human Ecology we carry on Martha’s legacy as we continue to meet the strenuous modern problems of today,” Dunifon said, noting how history and innovation come together in MVR Hall. “We have retained historic elements from the 1933 building and used the opportunity of this renovation to develop new spaces that reflect our work today.”

Thanking Our Friends

Dunifon also thanked former Senior Associate Dean Kay Obendorf, Human-Centered Design faculty member Rhonda Gilmore, and all CHE faculty and staff.    

“Over the many stages of this building’s renovation, [they] endured moves in and out of MVR, worked out of temporary spaces, worked around jackhammers, and took this opportunity to purge their offices of decades worth of material,” Dunifon said.

Dunifon credited Alan Mathios, now a professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, who served as CHE’s dean from 2007 to 2018. “I would like to thank Alan Mathios, who, during his 11 years as Dean, oversaw much of this work, and led the team that resulted in this amazing outcome,” she said.

Dunifon also thanked Kristie Mahoney, CHE’s Director of Facilities and Operations: “When you walk around the building and appreciate the beauty, functionality, attention to detail, and many elements that make this building special, you can think of Kristie. Her vision, work and tenacity led us to where we are today.”

Other speakers included Katherine McComas, Cornell’s Vice Provost for Engagement and Land-Grant Affairs, who spoke about the importance of the land-grant mission, the college’s commitment to public engagement, and the contributions of Cornell’s contract colleges like CHE.

Dunifon then welcomed attendees to tour the building and peruse several exhibits showcasing MVR’s history and current student work…with, once again, one foot in the past, one foot in the present but still, as President Pollack noted, looking to the future. 

“All of…the work in this building will support and strengthen the distinction of the College and the University for many years to come. To all of you who were part of this tremendous endeavor, thank you — and congratulations.”