Brand new Balch: university to renovate historic female dormitory


Balch Hall – home to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s college bedroom, old-fashioned ‘sinks’ and Instagram account @bugsofbalch – is about to get a makeover.

According to Karen Brown, senior director of marketing and communications for Campus Life, renovations will begin this fall or winter in the Gothic student dormitory. The architects of the project said they would modernize the building while preserving its historical integrity.

These plans are finally being implemented after architectural firm Goody Clancy began planning with the University 3.5 years ago. After two years in the design phase, the pandemic has partially put the project on hold. A building permit application in 2020 described the project as a “complete renovation” of the building, while the exterior will remain intact.

“It’s hard not to like Balch. It’s just beautiful, ”said Lisa Ferreira, architect at Goody Clancy and co-lead of the project.

But broken windows, dysfunctional utilities, inaccessible entrances, and antiques in general have required change. The renovation will update all utilities and recreate much of the interior, replacing all bathrooms, bedrooms and sinks and making room for around 280 beds. Once known for its multitude of spacious single rooms, 80 percent of the new rooms will be doubles.

The architects plan to install new lounges on each floor and keep the original ones, for a total of at least 16 common spaces. Zsuzsanna Gaspar, architect at Goody Clancy and co-lead of the project, said the old layout, with maze-like hallways and few group spaces, did not encourage student interaction.

“[Resident advisers] had to work very hard to bring their communities together, ”Gaspar said.

Each floor will have a new living room similar to this illustration, while the original living rooms will be kept. Rendered courtesy of Goody Clancy.

The changes will also include four new elevators and entrances reconfigured to improve accessibility, including a gently sloping path to the building’s signature arch, once accessible only by stairs. The arch, once a meeting place and hub for a cappella concerts, has been closed indefinitely since 2020.

The project will also install air conditioning throughout the building.

Scale models show what a newly renovated Balch Hall can look like. Rendered courtesy of Goody Clancy.

Former residents have mixed feelings about the renovation. Former RA Isabelle Aboaf ’21 said she liked the ornate moldings on the ceilings, the stairs, the vintage letterboxes and the wooden furniture. Each dorm had Balch-specific desks and shelves with heart engravings. Phoebe Dacek ’19 called interior design “so Ivy League”. Most of the furniture will be thrown away; the stairs will remain.

Sarah McDonald ’19, a three-year former resident and RA, agreed Balch needed updates, remembering the broken mosquito nets. Last spring, whole windows blew up in a windstorm.

“The crisis usually strikes suddenly,” said McDonald. “There would be a bunch of washing machines overflowing. There was a bat that I chased once. We once found a lobster in a bathroom.

However, McDonald’s had a soft spot for the building’s original features.

“It’s gotten pretty bad, and it really needs updating,” McDonald said. “But I love these windows. They are part of what makes Balch unique.

According to Gaspar, the new windows will reproduce the original style and the renovation will preserve the exterior of the building.

Other nods to the building’s history will include original bedroom doors reused as wall panels in living rooms – and special attention will be given to the old Ginsburg Gate.

Unlike new construction, in a historic building, factors such as existing windows and columns make the design more difficult. Gaspar said they were adopting an “original standard”.

“We just had to learn to love all of his quirk and make the most of it,” Gaspar said.

First opened in 1929, Balch is the result of a donation of $ 1,650,000 for new women’s halls by Allen C. Balch ’89 and his wife, formerly Janet Jacks, who completed her graduate studies at Cornell in 1888. The University, unlike other Ivy League institutions, had been open to women since its inception in 1865. The Balches demanded that any net operating income be used to increase faculty salaries.

Before Balch opened, women lived at Sage College, now Sage Hall and home of SC Johnson College of Business.

Balch Hall was first opened as a female dormitory in 1929. Photo by Troy Studio, courtesy of Cornell University.

At the start of the fall semester 2021, the University used Balch for quarantine housing, particularly during a record peak in COVID-19 cases. Infected students are no longer isolating themselves at Balch, according to Brown, and the university will instead rely on hotels in the area if necessary. As of October 29, Cornell had 11 active COVID cases on campus.

While Balch is empty this year, the new Toni Morrison Hall is exclusively for female students. Some students criticized the new layout of the North Campus Residential Expansion building as “office buildings,” a distinctly welcoming departure from the Balch.

Gaspar couldn’t determine when Balch’s renovation would be completed, but said similar projects typically take 18 to 24 months to build. The university recently completed construction of two new dormitories on the North Campus, which opened to residents this year.

As the campus continues to change, the renovation makes McDonald’s nostalgic. His mother, a former Cornell student, also lived in Balch. She wants the building to retain its original character.

“I just hope they do it justice,” McDonald said.

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