A.D. White House History

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Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s first president and co-founder, had his Victorian villa built for his use as president of the university in 1871. He announced at the time that he would spend $50,000 on the house, and give it to the university for use of future presidents when he retired. Work began in July and by mid-January of 1872 the chimneys were finished and the roofs boarded, though the slates were not yet in place. White’s papers in the Cornell archives contain many letters and accounts concerning construction and furnishing of the house. In late April 1872, White wrote his wife that the house was coming on satisfactorily except for the steam heating, “and that is an utter failure from top to bottom.”

For two years, White struggled with the heating. Inadequate systems were altered, amplified, tested, and replaced. A lawsuit was brought against the first supplier in Syracuse, and the Cornell vice-president, William Chaining Russel, sent White reports on room temperatures, steam pressure, outside temperature, and amount of coal consumed in attempts to warm the house. The house obviously needed its five fireplaces. In June of 1974, the entire family, servants and all, moved from Syracuse to the new house. In addition to A.D. White and his wife, Mary Outwater White, there were four children ranging in age from two months to fifteen years.

 An English stone carver, Robert Richardson, did his first Ithaca work on the White villa. His fine stone corbels and capitals flank the front entrance to the house and carry a moral reminder, “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The carving on the left side includes birds, butterflies, fruit, and flowers, while those on the right reproduce poisonous plants and repellent creatures. White felt that art should serve a moral purpose. Through his half-century’s association with the university, he had stained glass windows, sculpture, paintings, benches, bells, fountains, and memorial plaques placed about the grounds to remind students of the accomplishments of the past.

An old newspaper clipping reports that the balcony floor above the vestibule of the villa was “of Cleveland stone, weighing over two tons,” and that it supported a “balustrade of twenty small stone pillars, no two of which are carved similar.”  The balcony served as more than “an elegant frontispiece to the dwelling,” for White used to address victorious crews from the balcony on their return to Ithaca, and on several occasions stood upon it to acknowledge serenading students who came to welcome him back after his frequent absences. After passing through the small vestibule, visitors enter a broad, forty-two foot central hallway, which is open to the ceiling of the second floor hallway through a central balustrade “well hole.” It was White’s announced intention to furnish the hallway with a “number of richly carved Florentine chairs,” and to cover the walls with pictures. At the rear of the hall is a gently rising stairway with rail and balusters leading up from a walnut newel. The staircase is particularly inviting to children; and, indeed, White’s granddaughter, Pricilla Ferry, recalled that she “used to slide down the banister and land on a big white polar bear rug.”  The heavily carved sideboard may be a seventeenth century German piece that White mentioned in an early will; it appears in photographs of his St. Petersburg dining room.

The large parlor to the left of the front door, now called the Andrew D. White Room (Room 110) served as a music room. The heavily carved pieces on the inside wall came from the estate of White’s daughter Karin. The ceramic head, a copy of Verocchio’s David, belonged to White and appears in photographs of the American Embassy during his term as Ambassador in Berlin. This room was the formal living room during the early years, and the weddings of White’s daughters, Clara and Ruth, took place here against the background of the bay window garlanded with vines and roses. Photographs of this room after the Whites returned from Germany show many pieces of furniture that had been retained from their apartments in Berlin. French in style, these pieces of furniture were much lighter in character than the black walnut furniture they replaced. A broad veranda (now screened) extends along the north side of the music room.

Directly across the hall is a smaller parlor, originally called the morning room, which served the White family as an informal family room. It has been named the Bullis Room (Room 109) in honor of Mr. Gardner Bullis 1908. It was here that Mary Amanda Outwater White died very suddenly on a June morning in 1887. The demands of entertaining at commencement time combined with difficulty with a servant evidently precipitated a fatal heart attack. The gilt mirror came from the Cornell family and is a gift of Mr. Hunt Bradley, for many years Alumni Secretary.

The doors between the morning room and the former library may be closed for privacy or opened to form an archway between the two rooms. The library is now called the Guerlac Room, in honor of Henry Guerlac, Director of the Society for the Humanities (1970 – 1977). Guerlac was instrumental in saving the A.D. White House from destruction in the 1970s by applying for and receiving National Historical Registry status for the building. Under his direction, the restoration of the building and the acquisition of the furniture were accomplished through many contributions.

The Guerlac Room, which is forty-three feet long, has seen many changes. Originally, the entire wall surface was covered with bookcases. When the addition to the south end of the house was added, White considered making the old library into a dining room. A letter from William H. Miller answered White’s inquiry, telling him that by removing the bookcases, the room would be large enough to seat forty guests for dinner. Little of the crowded room pictured in the 1880s remains. White took the carved revolving bookcase, topped by an owl and ornamented with the raised names of famous writers, on more than one trip across the ocean. Its Germanic origin is confirmed in the misspelling of Bankroft and Langfellow.

After the death of White’s last surviving daughter, Karin White, in 1971, a number of family pieces – a wing chair with a rampant lion stitched to its upholstered back (known to be White’s favorite chair), and a pair of embossed leather chairs – were acquired for the house. Two portraits of White’s parents by Charles Loring Elliott, which were in the house in White’s time, now hang in room 201. The portrait of his mother, Clara Dickson White, hung for many years in the Cornell women’s dormitory that bears her maiden name. The Eastman Johnson portrait of Andrew D. White himself hangs above the fireplace. Considered a fine painting and a good likeness, the work was commissioned by the family in 1887, and was owned by Karin White until it passed by the terms of her will to the Cornell University Archives. It is now on permanent loan to the House where alumni, faculty and visitors view it each year.

The fine mahogany mantel piece, with the name ‘Samana’ across its face, is a souvenir from White’s stay in the fishing village of the same name in Santo Domingo in January of 1871 when he was a member of the commission President Grant sent to study the island’s annexation. The mantel has small brass plates affixed to it commemorating distinguished visitors to the house. President Grant and his wife came in September 1876. The President, according to White’s diary, stood directly in front of the mantelpiece to receive guests. In October of 1878, General Garfield visited for a night. Other visitors recorded are three Regius Professors of History from Oxford, including Goldwin Smith, James Anthony Froude and Edward Augustus Freeman. The plate commemorating the visit of President Eisenhower was added during President Malott’s term. Other furniture of interest and with Cornell associations are the large, graceful sofa that belonged to the parents of Morris Bishop, the gift of Professor and Mrs. Bishop, as well as the fine Victorian pieces, given by Miss Louella Williams 1916, that once belonged to the gifted stone-carver Robert Richardson.

In 1912, when the addition was made to the south end of the house, including a first floor secretary’s office, White ordered copies of the crests of various colleges with which he had been associated, including Hobart and St. Andrews, to decorate the windows of his new den.

The den is not generally open and has served Cornell Presidents as a useful sanctuary. It contains some objects of special interest, including the President’s Chair in which Ezra Cornell and the early presidents of Cornell were photographed. A medallion on the back of the chair came loose during a Board of Trustees meeting in the president’s office. When a workman started to replace the medallion he found a foil-covered slip of paper in the small hole behind it. On the paper was a message written in German script and dated Spandau, September 24, 1868. Professor George Lincoln Burr rendered the message in English as, “Go out into the world and testify to what is born, even in prison walls, from strength, from patience, and from loving toil. The United Workmen.”

Opening from an east door of the living room is the conservatory with its tile floor. Built in the angle between the old library and the dining room, it affords a fine view of the gardens at the rear of the house. Pricilla Ferry once recalled “the fountain in the conservatory tinkling away and perfumes from the flowers making every meal elegant and festive.” In 1989, the Class of 1952 donated funds to restore the conservatory to its original splendor and maintain it with plants and orchids.

Photographs of the original dining room show simple light walls with a dado and a handsome ceiling patterned with a lacing of walnut moldings and turned pendants. The only piece of furniture that survives from the original dining room is the small folding serving table with spiral legs, the gift of Mr. Courtney Crawford, Law 1954. The studded leather chairs of that time have been replaced by a set of more elaborately carved chairs found in Seneca County for the House by Mr. Jay Cantor 1964, an art historian and preservationist who served as artistic director during the renovation of the House.

The present dining room was installed at the behest of President Malott in 1953 under the supervision of another Cornellian, Mr. Searle von Storch, Architecture 1923. This reconstructed dining room was originally part of the New York City home of Peter Cooper, the 19th century industrialist. The dining room was constructed after Peter Cooper’s death in 1883 when Stanford White remodeled the entire house at the request of Cooper’s daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Abram S. Hewitt. The elaborately hand-carved oak wall and door paneling is Flemish, inscribed with the date “1655.” The allegorical mural incorporated into the woodwork is 17th or 18th century and came from the Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. The ceiling is Moorish and later in date than the paneling. It is interesting to speculate whether or not Andrew D. White actually saw and admired this room in Hewitt’s home. In his diary for April 5, 1897, he wrote, “In evening to Hon. Abram S. Hewitt and had a most interesting visit. Mr. H. showed me his improved house, which is very handsome.

The gardens to the east of the House have gone through periods of splendor and of relative neglect. Little was done in the early years, but White’s second wife was an enthusiastic gardener and employed a full-time gardener for many years. The gardens were further developed during the presidency of Livingston Farrand and his popular wife, Daisy. The Cornell Archives have photographs of the White House and gardens during this time made by Margaret Bourke-White 1927, early in her career. The white or secret garden, in honor of Mrs. Farrand, has recently been replanted and partially restored in memory of Professor Morris Bishop, through the generosity of Mrs. Alison Kingsbury Bishop, her sister, Mrs. W. Rowell Chase, and Mrs. Virginia Scheetz.

The north wing of the mansion was originally the servants’ quarters. On the first floor, beyond the kitchen, were a servants’ hall and two small bedrooms. This area has been converted into a guest suite, with a private entrance, for use by visiting scholars.

Besides White and Farrand, only one other Cornell president lived in the house, Edmund Ezra Day, who headed the University from 1938 until 1949. When Charles Kendall Adams became president, after White’s sudden resignation in June of 1885, he moved into a house the university owned at 41 East Avenue, occupied earlier by Professors Bela Mackoon and Herbert Tuttle, and later by President Schurman. That house has long since been demolished. For two brief periods when the Whites went to Berlin in 1879, the vice-president, William Channing Russel, and his family moved in. While White was in St. Petersburg in 1893, a group of bachelor professors, including Burr, Ernest Huffcut, and Duncan Campbell Lee, lived at 27 East Avenue, still the street address of the Andrew Dickson White House. The mansion served from 1953 to 1973 as the University Art Museum.

The present use of White’s old mansion, on what Willard Fiske called Breezy Knoll, as a Center for the Humanities and the home of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, seems particularly appropriate. White’s plan for awarding fellowships at Cornell, although included in his early drafts, was not put into effect until funds became available in 1884-85. White was closely associated with President Gilman of Johns Hopkins University, a newly founded institution oriented toward graduate study and research, and he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Leland Stanford and his wife to establish an extensive national program of scholarships and fellowships instead of founding a university.

By restoring the home-like character of the first floor rooms, the Center has created a pleasant background for fellowship programs, university lectures, seminars, conferences, luncheons, receptions, and dinners. The two front rooms are used during the academic year as classrooms. During the summer, the Center has provided space for special programs, most recently the summer sessions of the School of Criticism and Theory. It is also widely known as a splendid facility for wedding ceremonies and receptions. The many studies that have been created from the bedrooms on the second and third floors now house the Society Fellows, the Director of the Society and administrative staff. Over the south wing of the building there is a combined seminar room/reference library used by Society Fellows.

Please note: Some of the furniture mentioned in this description has been moved to rooms on the second and third floors in an effort to keep these pieces intact and to protect them from public use. The studies on the second and third floors are offices for our visiting Fellows and are not open to the public. We realize that this diminishes the home-like character of the first floor rooms, but we feel it is equally important to preserve the fragile antiques. We hope that you agree with us and will help us continue to maintain those items that remain by treating them as carefully as you would your own fine antiques or precious collections.