Skip to main content


What lies beneath

excavation prior to construction of Cornell Store

Excavation prior to the construction of the Cornell Store, 1969. Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections See larger image

Perhaps the most recognizable landmark on Cornell's Ithaca campus is the majestic McGraw Tower with its 173 feet, 161 steps and 21 bells. But what about the areas of campus that don't tower far above Cayuga's waters? What lies beneath the acres of picturesque quadrangles and stately halls of learning?

Walking between Goldwin Smith Hall and Stimson Hall, the average Cornellian may not realize that the university's rarest and most valued treasures are right below his or her feet. The only visible parts of Carl A. Kroch Library, opened in 1992, are four skylights hidden among bushes to the north of Stimson Hall. Kroch Library is home to the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, whose climate-controlled vault extends well underneath the Arts Quad. Construction of this state-of-the-art facility involved excavating 80,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock extending 52 feet below the level of East Avenue. The result is the only place in the world where students can play Frisbee on top of cuneiform tablets, suntan over the papers of Ezra Cornell and James Joyce, or have a picnic above medieval manuscripts.

Hans Bethe and Boyce McDaniel in underground electron storage ring tunnel

Professor Hans Bethe, left, rides a bike through the underground tunnel of the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, accompanied by Boyce McDaniel, then director of the Wilson Synchrotron, in 1968. Photo: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections See larger image

On the east end of campus is another type of buried treasure, the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory. The synchrotron itself, originally constructed in 1967 with nearly $12 million from the National Science Foundation, was the world's largest electron synchrotron at its opening and was the largest single construction project in Cornell's history. With expansions over the years, the facility includes a tunnel buried 40 feet beneath Cornell's track complex, creating a giant ring with a half-mile circumference. The synchrotron and affiliated facilities accelerate and collide particles to study the smallest elements of matter, while also harnessing the generated radiation for a variety of research projects. As Cornell athletes set records above ground, scientists from around the world continue Cornell's legacy of particle physics innovations below.

The latest subterranean project is the expansion of Myron Taylor Hall at the Law School, where two new classrooms and an auditorium are under construction beneath the lawn with little increase to the building footprint. The project is reminiscent of the Cornell Store's construction in 1969, which strived to preserve green space in the center of campus. Although intended to be even deeper underground, the Cornell Store ended up a few feet higher than planned due to the challenge and cost of excavating bedrock. Other recently completed projects with substantial underground components include the Human Ecology Building parking garage and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art addition.

On your next Ithaca visit, look beyond the towers and quads and take note of what's below the familiar buildings and vistas. From the dendrochronology laboratory in the basement of Goldwin Smith Hall to the Cornell Glee Club and Chorus offices in the depths of Sage Chapel, some of Cornell's best work is being done underground.

Corey Ryan Earle '07 is associate director of student programs in Cornell's Office of Alumni Affairs.

Back to top