Historic preservation, human-centric design and mission drive Martha Van Rensselaer Hall renovations

New collaborative work space in MVR Hall

Phase Three renovations of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall (MVR) concluded last year and complete a comprehensive upgrade to nearly 120,000 square feet of this Georgian Revival style building originally built between 1931 and 1933. Among many improvements, the renovations open the flow of the building and showcase the interconnectedness of the Human Ecology community.

The upgrades are considered a commitment to the philosophy originally set for the college by Martha Van Rensselaer and the innovative, multi-disciplinary institution it has evolved into over time. The improvements enhance connectivity, circulation, spatial organization, and functionality. By enhancing the quality, productivity and overall experience in MVR Hall, the college strengthens its mission to improve lives into the future.

MVR Hall Checkerboard Square with modern furnishings (2020-2021)

MVR Hall's Checkerboard Square was renovated to preserve historic elements, like harlequin marble, while incorporating modern lighting and furnishings.

"One of the things we know from our expertise in Human Ecology is that the environment around us significantly influences our health, our wellbeing, how we go about our days, and how we do our work, and so that mindset influenced the renovation," said Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean. "A building is not just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s an environment in which we can thrive – it influences us, and we influence the space as well."

Adapting to campus de-densification and hybrid teaching during the public health crisis, she added, reflects the flexibility inherent in the building design and the principles of the college. "The fact that this renovation was completed in the midst of a pandemic is a significant bright spot for all of us, really. To be able to see the new spaces gives us a lot of hope for the future. I can imagine what it will be in the not-too-distant future. It will be teaming with students, faculty and staff. Martha’s Café will be packed, and the classrooms and the research collaboration spaces will be filled."

MVR Hall auditorium staged for hybrid teaching

The MVR Hall auditorium is staged for hybrid teaching for AY2020-2021.

Celebrating the success of the project, and more specifically the last phase of renovation, pays tribute to the enormity of the task amid many challenges and acknowledges the financial support that advanced the much-needed upgrades. The inspirations and the way in which the work was completed also shares the spotlight.

The comprehensive renovation was the product of many hands and minds working in concert over 19 years, but the core team representing the College of Human Ecology in design and execution decisions for the project made an unplanned symmetry with that of the champions behind the construction of the original facility.

College founders Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt were essential influencers in the original construction of MVR Hall. In its more recent history, Professor Emerita and former Associate Dean Kay Obendorf, Director of Facilities and Operations Kristine Mahoney, and Senior Lecturer Rhonda Gilmore ensured that all phases of the renovations honored the legacy of the physical space and the mission of the college, while preparing it for the future.

The serendipity of three women influencing MVR Hall construction, then and now, was not lost on the renovation team, who viewed the founders as examples of how to navigate tense planning discussions with diplomacy and open dialogue, while working tirelessly to achieve the best outcome for the College and the communities it serves. Obendorf, Mahoney and Gilmore brought the same kind of dedication, persistence and ability to get things done to the project as the three women who were responsible for the original building construction.

"I felt like we were fighting for Flora and Martha," Gilmore said. "And I remember saying, 'I wish I could work with Kay and Kristie for the rest of my life.' Their ability to set boundaries, their ability to talk with power and strength, their ability to articulate the needs and desires of the College, I was just in awe on multiple occasions. So, I felt that the history was living through us. I really did. And it was a powerful force in the decision-making process."

Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose

Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer, Cornell's first full-time female faculty members, founded the College of Home Economics (now the College of Human Ecology).

“MVR Hall is very important because it was built during and after the beginning of the Great Depression. The choice of Georgian Revival at that moment makes an aesthetic statement that embodies the values of the college and represents strength. I think the founders wanted this primarily female college to have a sense of integrity and familiarity, but also solidity. This was going to be a college that had a future; Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose were building something that was very, very important to society.”

Rhonda Gilmore, Senior Lecturer
Design + Environmental Analysis

Founding a department, then school and college dedicated to increasing access to higher education and scientific discovery for women took fortitude and a strong belief in the power and importance of its mission. Carving out a space for proper facilities also presented a challenge. When Van Rensselaer’s department became the School of Home Economics in 1919, it was located in the former Comstock Hall, now the Computing and Communications Center building, and suffered from overcrowding throughout the year and even more so during the popular Farmer’s Week (evolved to Farm and Home Week) at Cornell. The school had 15 staff members, 253 students and a Home Bureau network in 25 counties.

Programs at the time delivered the science of nutrition and sanitation, product and housing design, textiles, the economic principles of home management, and the emerging science of child development. Not only did the school need its own building, it needed one that could accommodate vast and demanding programmatic needs, such as animal facilities, chemical labs and an early childhood development lab along with classrooms and staff offices.

The challenges of the contemporary renovations of MVR Hall, which began in 2001, were no less demanding. An audit of all State of New York university holdings revealed that the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems needed to be brought up to current standards. The necessary renovation presented an opportunity to utilize the human-centered design researched and taught in the design and environmental analysis department while meeting and exceeding sustainability goals in materials and technology, diverting waste from landfills by donating reusable goods to local groups and minimizing construction impact on the surrounding community.

At a time when the organization was growing, the renovation offered the college a physical project through which to re-think the relationship between departments, administrative services, research labs, and common areas. Through these efforts, the upgraded MVR Hall showcases the college’s focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, experiential learning, innovative research, and public engagement while highlighting the unique strengths of each department.

The renovation was made possible through the State University of New York (SUNY) Construction Fund. Dunifon said she is incredibly grateful to the State of New York for supporting the renovation, even as the final stages were completed in the midst of a global pandemic. She described the updated building as a testament to Human Ecology’s commitment to the state and pride in being a member of the SUNY system and a land grant university.

"A lot of the work we have been doing and will be doing in the walls of this building directly addresses the needs of the citizens of New York," Dunifon said. "For example, we have faculty and students and staff who are working through the 4-H system to promote positive youth development. Our nutrition education and community education programs will be housed in the building as well as scholars in other disciplines working with families and parents at-risk locally and throughout the state. We will be carrying out innovative work that addresses some of the most pressing needs we face in New York and beyond, which is really exciting."

The construction of the original MVR Hall was also made possible through the State of New York investing in and supporting the college, though the path to financial support was rather different. The eventual success of securing the funds to build the facility was closely tied to the friendship Van Rensselaer and Rose had formed with Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed their work both publicly and privately.

In the summer of 1928, tentative plans were made for the building with an estimated budget of $975,000, but New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt only allocated $475,000 in his budget with the suggestion that a central building be built and added to later.

In a 1953 interview, Flora Rose recalled a conversation while she and Van Rensselaer were staying with the Roosevelts in Albany, "Eleanor said to Franklin, 'Franklin, why don’t you give Martha all the money she asked for, the million dollars?' and Franklin said, 'Why Eleanor, you know Martha can’t use all of that right away, I’ll give her the rest in time for her to complete the building.'"

Martha Van Rensselaer and Eleanor Roosevelt with member of the League of Women Voters (1920)

Martha Van Rensselaer and Eleanor Roosevelt with other members of the League of Women Voters (1920)

"A lot of the work we have been doing and will be doing in the walls of this building directly addresses the needs of the citizens of New York. For example, we have faculty and students and staff who are working through the 4-H system to promote positive youth development. Our nutrition education and community education programs will be housed in the building as well as scholars in other disciplines working with families and parents at-risk locally and throughout the state. We will be carrying out innovative work that addresses some of the most pressing needs we face in New York and beyond, which is really exciting."

Rachel Dunifon, Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean
College of Human Ecology

"The history of the college is very meaningful to me," said Dunifon. "Martha Van Rensselaer was a pioneering woman, one of the first fulltime, female faculty members at Cornell. She led the founding of our college. She was an intellectual leader on campus, and she was also engaged nationwide in the struggle for women’s rights. She was close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and other women’s rights leaders. The college has played an important role throughout time in educating women and future leaders, and the renovation recognizes and celebrates this history. At the same time, it is modernized and built for the next 100 years of the college. That is, collaboration, research excellence, supporting our students, and doing publicly engaged work that addresses the most pressing public health issues we face today. This renovation is a beautiful nod to the past and a place we will carry out our future."

Former Dean Alan Mathios, whom Obendorf credits with promoting and fostering the kind of teamwork and collaboration exemplified by the work of the renovation design and execution team, said the priorities of the college – sustainability, collaboration across disciplines leading to innovation, and student-centered experiences – were embedded in every aspect of the renovation.

He described the new MRI complex, constructed during an earlier phase of the renovation, which brings together researchers from many disciplines, as just one an example of the collaborative spaces built into the new design, and the elevation of public policy at Cornell as evidence of what happens when collaboration and innovation are promoted.

"We designed the complex to create a great ability for the components of the policy program to work together," Mathios said. "We have a suite for the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, the Sloan Program in Health Administration, and the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, which will merge into the School of Public Policy. While we didn’t know it would be the School of Public Policy at the time when we planned the renovations, much of the thinking was: let’s develop the space that allows for the growth in our policy programs. Lo and behold that growth has developed into something even bigger than we thought."

When he strolls through the renovated building, Mathios says he is in almost a state of disbelief about how well it reflects the intended vision and the positive energy it exudes. 

The newly renovated building restores the grandeur of the original structure through elements rarely seen in modern builds, such as crown and chair rail molding, restored art deco light fixtures and the harlequin marble of checkerboard square. Gilmore explained the significance of the aesthetic choices in the renovation and why she fought so hard to preserve them.

MVR Hall west stairwell renovation (2020-2021)

The MVR Hall open-view, west stairwell was renovated to improve aesthetics and building navigation.

The renovation marries the splendor of the classic, original building with innovative design and systems-thinking. From smart classrooms that can be reconfigured in minutes into collaborative workspaces, to wider corridors, open-view stairwells, and greater access to natural light that improve the spatial character, visibility and sustainability of the building, every aspect of the design focused on user experience. Scattered throughout the building are restored examples of classic pieces, including chairs, desks, and tables by Eames, Saarinen, Bertoia, Knoll, Vecta, and Chadwick that serve their intended function as well as providing educational opportunities for students studying textiles, design history and ergonomics.

Mahoney, who started working on the MVR renovation only a few years after arriving at Cornell, said she quickly realized how much Van Rensselaer, Rose and Roosevelt were the bedrock of the college’s evolving identity and continued success.

"Early on in my time here, someone explained the history of the college to me and put it within the context of women who work behind the scenes to get things done," Mahoney said. "Without that backdoor relationship-building and negotiating, the college wouldn't have become what it was, either in organization or in facility. So often we would have these struggles, and we would ask ourselves, is now the time to be quiet women sitting at the table, or is this the time to negotiate and find a way to get what we know the college needs?"

Human Ecology director of facilities and operations Kristine Mahoney in MVR Hall during renovations

College of Human Ecology's director of facilities and operations, Kristie Mahoney, was integral to the success of the multi-year renovation of MVR Hall.

"Kay’s attitude toward bringing in different perspectives, her focus on programmatic needs and highlighting the important scientific research taking place in the college, resulted in a practical, level-headed engagement and made space for Rhonda to leverage a very human-engaged design-side – how people feel, how that affects their performance – and then allowed me to be able to say, okay, but here's our risk, here’s where we’re going to have problems. We didn’t have three voices saying the same thing. That celebration of the strength of diversification is part of what makes Human Ecology what it is."

Kristie Mahoney, Director of Facilities and Operations
College of Human Ecology

When Obendorf M.S.’74, Ph.D. ’76, who retired in 2016, arrived at Cornell as an assistant professor in the then-Department of Textiles and Clothing in 1966, Cornell was still one of the only Ivy League members admitting women, rather than relegating them to sister schools. In addition to her long career teaching fiber science and researching textiles to improve laundering efficacy, performance apparel, and safety apparel for farm workers, first responders and military, Obendorf made professional service to the college a priority. Her 50-year Cornell career spanned a third of the university’s history and almost half that of the College of Human Ecology’s. She said the history of the college is just as significant to new members of the community as it was to her when she arrived.

"I think it's important to prospective students, their parents and to current students to actually see and feel when they come into the space, the history of the unit they're going to join and where that unit is going," Obendorf said. "To me there’s a continuum of human-centered research from the early years of Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose to the current generation of researchers doing ground-breaking work in human health and well-being. And of course, our college and this building were very important to women's higher education, both at Cornell and nationally."

Gilmore and Mahoney said Obendorf’s long view of where the college had been, and where it was going, helped them better understand the nuances of different decisions. Her persistent commitment to achieving the best outcome for the college through bringing in diverse voices, empowered them to bring their individual expertise and perspective to the table.

The renovation of MVR Hall was a lengthy process – nearly 20 years, multiple deans, countless committee meetings, and sustained efforts for wide-ranging input. Before her involvement, Mahoney had only ever worked on new buildings that were designed and built within a few years. She said the nature of adaptive renovation and the college’s commitment to having ongoing discussions with faculty and staff about shifting needs, made the MVR Hall renovation a lengthier process but, as the results speak for themselves, one that could stand as a model for others.

She explained that a team like theirs is usually comprised of three engineers or three architects, but that pairing a physical scientist, an adaptive reuse and LEED-certified designer, and a facilities expert, brought a broader range of knowledge, communication styles and perspectives to decisions that would affect the college for decades.

"Kay’s attitude toward bringing in different perspectives, her focus on programmatic needs and highlighting the important scientific research taking place in the college, resulted in a practical, level-headed engagement and made space for Rhonda to leverage a very human-engaged design-side – how people feel, how that affects their performance – and then allowed me to be able to say, okay, but here's our risk, here’s where we’re going to have problems. We didn’t have three voices saying the same thing. That celebration of the strength of diversification is part of what makes Human Ecology what it is."

Throughout the renovation phases, students worked with Mahoney on various aspects, getting on-the-ground internship experience doing the design work they were learning in the classroom and adding the invaluable perspective of current students to the process. Eden Brachot ‘15 (design and environmental analysis) was part of a student team that designed a smart classroom focused on collaboration, multi-function use and adaptability. Now a design strategist who works on everything from 40-person nonprofit office renovations to multi-building headquarters master-planning, Brachot said the opportunity to take what she learned in Gilmore’s classroom (among others) and immediately put it into practice working for Mahoney is part of what makes the design and environmental analysis department top of its field.

Alumna Eden Brochet with Human Ecology staff in MVR Hall auditorium

As a student, Human Ecology alumna Eden Brachot, here with members of the College community, worked on the design of a smart classroom focused on collaboration, multi-function use, and adaptability. 

"The renovation speaks to the significance of Human Ecology within the university, while catapulting it into the future in a way that feels significant and permanent and manages to instill a sense of pride and also nostalgia, which is a hard balance to strike but they achieved it," Brachot said. "And, as an alumna, I am proud of the emphasis that the renovation has put on reusing furniture and materials. Our college has always prioritized people and the environment as one, and this project is no exception to that theme."

Eden Brachot '15
Design + Environmental Analysis

"Design and environmental analysis takes such a practical approach to teaching good design through function, environmental psychology, understanding the end-user and the intention of the space, as well as aesthetics. That emphasis has fed directly into what I do today, and of all of the people I've met with my job description, across the world, an overwhelming number graduated from this program. It prepares us to think strategically and solve spatial and behavioral challenges."

She said the history of the college was important to her as a student, knowing what Martha Van Rensselaer had accomplished and the way Human Ecology honored those accomplishments, was a source of pride, and she is pleased to see the renovation continue to honor that legacy.

"The renovation speaks to the significance of Human Ecology within the university, while catapulting it into the future in a way that feels significant and permanent and manages to instill a sense of pride and also nostalgia, which is a hard balance to strike but they achieved it," Brachot said. "And, as an alumna, I am proud of the emphasis that the renovation has put on reusing furniture and materials. Our college has always prioritized people and the environment as one, and this project is no exception to that theme."

As the College looks ahead to the next century, Eleanor Roosevelt’s address during the original MVR Hall building dedication in 1934 continues to resonate today: "[The new building] is a fitting tribute to the work of a courageous and far-seeing woman, and not only does the building itself thrill me, but what it stands for and the service it will be able to render."

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