Most of the streams and rivers ran at record-low levels, and many of the waterfalls simply had gone bone dry. Drought in central New York had made a seriously powerful impact on Ithaca’s great attraction, and thus my hiking plans, although the gorges still impressed me with their steep walls as I descended into these ravines. Back at ground level, as I ambled around the city and stumbled upon free ice cream samples and musicians outside their homes entertaining neighbors and visitors during Porchfest, I was impressed by quite a few of the city’s noteworthy buildings. These are my favorites.
#1 Sage Hall, Cornell University
A stroll around the sprawling campus of Cornell University rewarded me with a natural waterfall that had managed to sidestep the dearth of rain, a 35-acre botanic garden, and some fine architecture, the finest being Sage Hall. Built in 1875 as a residential building (what a great dorm that must have been!), it was repurposed as the home of the graduate management school in 1998. A mansard roof of polychromatic slate, punctured with double-arched windows, caps this handsome three-story structure. Bands of yellow and black bricks embellish the red-brick façade. One of the campus’ signature towers features a large wood bay window and an interrupted spire. Designed by Reverend Charles Babcock, Cornell’s first professor of architecture, and named after Henry Sage, a lumber magnate who endowed the Sage Residential College for Women on the campus, Sage Hall signaled the introduction of large numbers of women into the university, making Cornell one of the first universities in the eastern United States to admit female scholars.
#2 Sage Chapel, Cornell University
The sounds of a brilliant piano performance floating from the open doors of Sage Chapel lured me inside. Upon entering, I didn’t know what to do first: take in the sublime interior or devote my attention to the impassioned student playing a long, complicated composition to an empty venue. I took a seat in the first pew and treated myself to this unexpected pleasure, an unintentionally private concert given by an astoundingly talented young man. I spoke with him afterward and learned he was an exchange student from China. When I posited that he was a music major, he corrected me: He was studying mechanical engineering. Hopefully, I thought as I began to look around the chapel, he will change his mind. Sage Chapel, another of Babcock’s plans, opened for worship in 1875 and has been through a few expansions over the decades, the last of which was in 1940. The result is a glorious building with a colorful mosaic floor and perfect angel mosaics above the altar; an organ with nearly 4,000 speaking pipes; Tiffany glass windows; artistic renderings representing Christian themes, such as olive vines, anchors, and lambs; and eye-catching paintings on the wood ceiling.
#3 Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church
Downtown Ithaca has a surprisingly large number of churches clustered in a fairly small radius. Among this concentration of houses of worship, the Immaculate Conception Church emerged as my favorite. This stone church, with spires topped with crosses, was constructed in 1898. Complete with four altars, Belgian tapestry, a 115-year-old organ, and a rose window with a crown of thorns at its center, which is superimposed on the altar when the sun hits it at just the right time, the church hosts a very active parish who gather under the lovely wood ceiling with sky-blue panels. The 21 stained-glass windows of various saints grabbed my attention, including those of St. Patrick in a green robe, St. George standing on the slain dragon, and St. Anne looking down at young daughter Mary. The wonderful depiction of the Wedding at Cana clearly depicts the white water being poured by a servant from one jug into another turning into red wine.
#4 St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Church
Directly across the street from the Immaculate Conception Church, St. Catherine Church has been home to Ithaca’s Greek-American community since 1967. Originally built in 1884 for the city’s First Congregational Society, the church was also utilized by Ithaca College for its music and performing arts programs in the 1960s. Resting on a stone foundation topped with Bible passages (“Take my yoke upon you and learn of me,” for instance), the brick building with a tall bell tower features a curious short, rounded corner with a band of windows and a copper roof turned verdigris. Inside, half a dozen chandeliers illuminate the open space, ringed by golden images of saints and icons. The original stained-glass windows and organ still retain their original places, and an all-seeing eye above a painting of the Last Supper watches over it all.
#5 Barnes Hall, Cornell University
Back on the Cornell University campus, along the same walkway as Sage Chapel, I found the handsome Barnes Hall and its curious history. Completed in 1887 to the designs of the same architect as St. Catherine’s Church, this 21,000-square-foot Romanesque building was spearheaded by a student from the Class of 1888 who was disturbed by Cornell’s “godless” reputation. Barnes Hall thus rose as the headquarters for his group, the Student Christian Association. The L-shaped building utilizes matching bricks as the chapel and features a tower containing its main stairwell in the corner, a steeply pitched roof, one curved wing, and a variety of windows—round, rectangular, arched. Over more than a century, the building’s purpose has evolved, now housing student services. But its origins can still be seen in its cornerstone, which bears the inscription, “For the Promotion of God’s Truth among Men.”