Cornell College planning $10 million in residence hall upgrades

Housing upgrades made possible through gifts to the college

Vanessa Miller
Published: February 17 2014 | 5:35 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:46 am in

Cornell College in Mount Vernon calls itself a “residential college,” and leaders there are taking steps to make sure its student housing amenities stand up to expectations associated with such a label.

Officials with the private, liberal-arts college announced on Monday a $10 million, 15-month renovation of four residence halls will begin in May – following the end of the academic year. The project, expected to wrap up in August 2015, will renovate and modernize Pauley, Rorem Tarr and Dows halls, which were built in the 1960s and house about 300 students, mostly freshmen.

“These residence halls were built nearly 50 years ago, and student expectations have changed dramatically since then,” said John Harp, vice president for student affairs. “These renovations will provide vibrant and engaging spaces to help our students have the best possible experience.”

The massive housing upgrades are being made possible through gifts from 11 members of the college’s board of trustees and their families – Cornell has 26 current trustees and 13 life trustees, said college spokesman Jamie Kelly.

Renovations will focus on making the halls more inviting and hospitable – upgrading entrances, adding patios and creating more natural light and activity spaces. The project also will add new bathrooms, expand existing ones and improve student rooms with new flooring, lighting and furniture, according to Cornell officials.

Each of the four residence halls will have a themed lounge on the first floor – Pauley will have a recreation and game area, Rorem will have reading and study rooms, Tarr will have a stage and performance area and Dows will have a demonstration-style kitchen.

The residence halls’ mechanical systems – including electrical, heating and plumbing – also will be replaced, and new energy efficient windows will be installed.

“They were built in the 1960s, and they have never been renovated,” Kelly said. “Their entrances are really lacking. They don’t welcome you.”

Cornell offers student housing in 10 residence halls and four apartment buildings, Kelly said, and about 92 percent of the school’s 1,100 students – around 1,000 – live on campus.

“We are different than, say, the University of Iowa, where students might spend only their first year or first semester on campus,” Kelly said. “We are a residential college, and most of our students live on campus for all four years.”

That often makes the most sense for Cornell students, he said, as there is limited residential housing stock in the 4,500-person community of Mount Vernon, and many students don’t want to commute from larger neighboring communities, such as Cedar Rapids.

Upgrading the halls that house mostly freshmen could help attract more students to Cornell -- although the renovations don't include plans to add beds, Kelly said.

“The idea is to make sure the students that are there are in good shape and have good housing," he said.

Work will happen in phases – starting with Pauley Hall in May – and only one building will be offline at a time to minimize the inconvenience. Because work will continue throughout the next academic year, however, Cornell officials have a backup housing plan for when certain residence halls are out of commission.

If necessary, Kelly said, upperclassmen could be moved to apartment living or to rooms in a local hotel – freeing residence hall space for underclassmen.

“That is something we are going to have to figure out as we get a better enrollment picture,” Kelly said. “But everyone is going to have housing.”

All $10 million needed for the renovations has been donated, and Kelly said college officials are continuing to raise funds for a few additional upgrades to the building entrances.

Leadership donors for the project include John and Dyan Smith, of Cedar Rapids; Richard and Norma Thomas Small, of Tulsa, Okla.; Thomas and Linda Webb Koehn, of West Des Moines; and Richard and Marlene Williams, of Chicago.

The gifts come at a challenging time for higher education funding, according to Cornell College President Jonathan Brand.

“The tremendous support from the board of trustees is a sign of their commitment and of a strong future for Cornell,” Brand said in a news release. “Higher education as a sector is facing many challenges, but the gifts from our trustees ensure that we will continue to improve our residential and academic buildings across campus.”

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