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Uris Library/McGraw Tower, Cornell University
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Central Ave, Ithaca, NY, USA (
The Uris Library and McGraw Tower
The Uris library is one of the many libraries belonging to Cornell University. Opened in 1891, it is the first Cornell building to serve solely as a library. Originally known as the University Library, the name was changed in 1962 to honor benefactor Percy Uris. The Uris Library currently houses a collection of children's literature as well as texts dealing with humanities and social sciences. The Uris Library is also the home of The White Library, the private book collection of Cornell University co-founder Andrew Dickson White. The library stands at the Southwest corner of the section of Cornell known as the
The Jennie McGraw Tower (commonly referred to simply as the McGraw Tower) attached to the library is named for Cornell benefactor Jennie McGraw Fiske. The tower is home to a complex system of bell chimes which are played by human "chimemasters" typically three times each day. The chimes are part of a long standing Cornell tradition that dates back to its inauguration day. Rarely, in its history, has a day gone by at Cornell where the bells have been silent.
The story behind the creation of the library and tower is a complex and dramatic tale. It is a story of romance, tragedy, family fortunes, conspiracies, betrayal and a long legal battle. It is the story of Jennie McGraw, a woman who is said to haunt the tower which bears her name.
Jennie McGraw (born September 14, 1840), was a very wealthy philanthropist with strong connections with Cornell University. She was the daughter of multi-millionaire lumber merchant John McGraw, himself a supporter of Cornell University (McGraw Hall is named for him). She inherited his large fortune upon his death in 1877. Aspects of the final years of Jennie's life and the years following her are the stuff of Victorian melodrama.
At the time of receiving her inheritance, Jennie was 36 years old and unmarried. She suddenly found herself with many suitors. Among those with romantic interest in Miss McGraw was Professor Daniel Willard Fiske, who had served as the University's librarian since it opened for enrollment in 1868. Fiske (who commonly went by his middle name) appears to have not actively pursued Jennie at first. He claimed to have written poems for Jennie McGraw during those years, but never sent them to her, for fear of being perceived as an opportunist seeking access to her wealth.
It wouldn't be until late in the year 1880, that the two would become romantically entangled. The two met up again in Rome, Italy and the courtship officially began. Willard Fiske had taken leave of his university job the year before and had been travelling around Europe. Jennie, suffering the final stages of tuberculosis (with which she'd suffered for many years) had settled in Italy where her health dwindled to the point of leaving her an invalid.
There are those who believe that Willard's love for Jennie was sincere. He didn't appear to be an aggressive suitor, and after leaving for Europe, he spent a good deal of time there before once again making the acquaintance of Miss McGraw. If his love was indeed sincere, then this is the tale of a tragic Victorian romance, in which the shy professor finally gains the courage to win the hand of his beloved as she languished on death's door.
However, there are also those who saw Willard as a shrewd methodical fortune hunter. The tortoise who won the race. It does appear that his time in Europe was funded by two men who likely had an interest in securing the McGraw family fortune for the university. One of the men was John McGraw's former business partner, Henry Sage, who also served on Cornell's Board of Trustees. The other man who funded Willard Fiske's time in Europe was Cornell Co-founder and its first President Andrew Dickson White. White apparently footed a lion's share of Willard's expenses, including paying for the engagement ring that Willard eventually purchased for Jennie. From White's journals, it is apparent that he kept a log of how much money he'd sent to Fiske and considered it all loans.
Some may see Willard as a willing agent or perhaps an unwitting pawn in a conspiracy. If so, it doesn't explain why he spent so much time abroad before making his way to Italy to pursue Jennie McGraw. With the moral character otherwise demonstrated by these men during the course of their lives, it is quite likely that White and Sage were acting out of kindness and probably were happy to play their part in bringing love in to the brief life of Jennie McGraw. It also stands to note that White and Fiske had been friends since childhood, and that White might have viewed paying for his friend's experiences abroad as noble use of his wealth.
Willard arrived in Rome in April of 1880. He and Jennie were engaged by the following month and wed on July 14, 1880. The two traveled across the Middle East and Europe together during the months that followed. In June of 1881, while in Paris, a doctor informed Jennie McGraw Fiske that she had but short time left to live. The new Mrs. Fiske made the decision to return home to Ithaca, New York to die.
She arrived back home in September. Prior to leaving for Europe, she'd ordered the construction of a mansion on the Cornell grounds. Purchasing furnishings for the home was her original reason for travelling to Europe. The mansion was completed in her absence. While being transported by coach to the place where she would spend her final days, Jennie raised her head head weakly from her pillows long enough to gaze upon the mansion in which she would never reside in life. She apparently was pleased with the results according the accounts of the coachman who transported her. She was taken elsewhere to spend her final days.
Jennie died on September 30, 1881. After her death, her body was taken to the mansion she'd built. The first time the house was put to use was for her funeral service. Some say that this
ill start for the mansion cursed it
. Jennie was interred in a sarcophagus in Cornell's Sage Chapel (named after her father's former business partner).
The Great Will Case
There was a brief period of panic following the burial of Jennie McGraw Fiske. Her will couldn't be found. Without a copy of her will, the family estate would be subject to John McGraw's final will and testament. It would pass automatically into the ownership of Jennie's Uncle Joseph. After much frantic searching, a maid mentioned that Mrs. Fiske's purse had been thrown out after being emptied of its contents. The purse was found and searched to no avail. It was tossed out again. After, somebody got the idea to search the purse one last time for a secret compartment. This last search proved fruitful and the will was finally discovered.
Jennie left money to her husband, her Uncle Joseph and his family, with the largest portion of the estate (including the mansion) being donated to Cornell. It was at this point that some underhanded dealings definitely took place. Jennie donated so much money to the university in her will, that University by-laws made it so the institution couldn't accept the complete gift. The original charter limited the amount of wealth the college could hold. The posthumous donation would have put them far beyond their limit. The charter was revised on May 12, 1882, in a manner that would allow the university to receive Jennie's estate. That was more than half a year after the death of Mrs. Fiske. None of this was brought to the attention of Willard Fiske by the parties involved.
The judge who was acting as executor of Jennie's will also failed to inform Willard that a deceased with a surviving spouse could not donate more than half of his/her estate to charity according to New York state law. Furthermore, the settlement of accounts for the will was planned for a time which those involved knew Willard Fiske would be out of the country. It was an apprentice lawyer who noticed these details and brought them to Fiske's attention just as he was about to leave once again for Europe.
This led to an ugly legal battle between Jennie's widow, her surviving family members and the university over possession of her estate. The legal struggle lasted seven years and became known as the Great Will Case. It cost everyone involved a good deal of money. In the end, the courts found in favor of Willard Fiske. The struggle embittered Henry Sage and Willard Fiske toward each other (Andrew Dickson White remained a friend to Fiske throughout). Sage eventually funded the library that was originally intended to be part of Jennie's donation. This included the bell tower built in her memory. Sage also had the following bitter message engraved onto a plaque in the library entrance:
The good she tried to do shall stand as if 'twere done
GOD finishes the work by noble souls begun.
In loving memory of JENNIE MCGRAW FISKE whose purpose to
found a great library for Cornell University has been defeated
this house is built and endowed by her friend
HENRY W. SAGE. 1891
There were some who saw the underhanded tactics used during the handling of the will as a desperate attempt to carry out the wishes of Jennie despite the law not being on their side. Some may say it was an attempt to keep the money out of the hands of a gold-digging widow. Others may see it as an act of greed and as an unfair attempt to illegally swindle a grieving man widowed barely a year after winning his beloved's hand in marriage. It is also possible that everyone involved was doing what they felt was honestly the right thing to do (even when not strictly legal). People who cared about the university and Jennie's wishes may have just made an error in judgement out of mistrust over rumors surrounding Fiske's courtship of Jennie. In turn, while justified (at least legally), Fiske's wrath with those involved likely was not the best way for him to honor his wife's memory.
Ultimately, the act that speaks the most about how Willard Fiske really felt about Jennie (and possibly about the college) occurred after his death in 1904. He left his entire estate to the very university he'd spent so much time battling in court. Fiske was interred in the Sage Chapel, next to his wife. It is said that the Sage family broke their association with the college after that.
There are vague tales of the ghost of Jennie McGraw Fiske haunting the tower that bares her maiden name, though many years have passed since anyone has claimed to have seen her.
The Jennie McGraw Tower
The Jennie McGraw Tower (originally called "Library Tower" and typically referred to these days simply as the "McGraw Tower"). This 173-foot tower is home to a complex chime system that includes 21 bells. The chimes are played by a human "chimesmaster." Typically there are ten chimemasters serving the school throughout the year. The chimemasters typically play three or more concerts a day while school is in session, with a reduced number of performances still being held daily when classes aren't in session.
Chimemasters are chosen from Cornell's student population through a yearly springtime competition that stretches over a ten week period. Winners earn themselves the privilege of regularly climbing 161 stairs and playing concerts for students, faculty and campus visitors. With more than 2,500 pieces of music arranged for the chimes, the concerts cover performances of both original music written for the chimes and adaptions of popular favorites, ranging from classical to rock compositions.
The concerts last roughly 15 minutes. Guests are welcome to witness the chimemaster perform in person if they scale the many stairs leading to the performance chamber prior to the concert. It is apparently a site to behold, as the performance is said to be extremely physically demanding. The activity needed to put on a concert coupled with walking up the 161 steps, once led to a chimemaster being awarded a physical education credit many decades ago. Unfortunately for the chimemasters as a whole, this never became a regular practice.
Traditionally, there are three compositions played throughout the day, with one of them tied to each of the three separate concerts. Morning concerts begin with the tune
also known as the
Jennie McGraw Rag
. This piece is intended to be played as fast as the chimemaster is able. Midday concerts are concluded with the
Cornell Alma Mater
. The final musical piece to be played each night upon the chimes is the
Cornell Evening Song
. Other than these three compositions, all songs are held to a "Three Week Rule", in which no song that has been played if it has been played within the previous three weeks. The three traditional songs can be heard online at the chimes web site (listed below).
The chiming bells have been a tradition for Cornell since they played during the college's inauguration ceremony on October 7, 1868. The original nine bells used were donated by Jennie McGraw. The bells originally stood on ground level in their current location. When Boardman Hall (built in 1892) was torn down and replaced with the Uris Library building, the bells were temporarily moved to McGraw Hall. The tower in which they hung still stands atop the hall. When construction of the Library Tower was completed, the bells were moved once again to their current resting place where they joined ten new bells.
From June 1998 until May 1999, the chimes of Cornell were silent. They were removed from the tower and put through an extensive retuning process. Another two bells were added, bringing the total to its current 21. The bells rang again from a temporary stand set up near Sage Chapel during the graduation ceremony and reunion in May 1999. The bells weren't re-installed until September 1999, when regular concerts once again commenced.
Holidays and Festivities
The tower's clock-faces are decorated at various times throughout the year to reflect holidays and campus events. This includes making the four clock-faces appear as grinning jack-o'-lanterns during the month of October. Likewise, music played on the chimes will reflect the season. It is not uncommon to hear the
Addam's Family Theme
or other spooky favorites played during October as well.
One October saw an actual pumpkin find its way to the top of the tower. On October 8, 1997, a prankster (or possibly pranksters) managed to stick a pumpkin on the spire at the very top of the tower. It was left there by decision of the administrators, who believed the gourd would rot and just fall off. It didn't. This led to conjecture that the pumpkin was actually synthetic. The university removed the pumpkin by crane on March 13, 1998. It was discovered through analysis that it had indeed been a real pumpkin after all. In April of 2005, another prank left a disco ball suspended from the spire.
Visiting the Tower
The tower is also home to the Chimes Museum, where visitors can learn more about Cornell's chimes. There is also a practice room on the lower level that allows prospective chimemasters to practice without making all of Cornell suffer through their learning process.
As mentioned previously, visitors are welcome to witness the playing of the chimes firsthand, if they are willing to brave the many stairs up to the top. For the visitor who merely wishes to listen to a concert, the recommended place to listen to the bells is from the Uris Library terrace. It is advisable that anyone planning a visit check the schedule at the chimes web site (listed below) for concert times. Anyone wishing to witness a chimes performance from the comfort of their home can view video clips on sites such as YouTube.
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Web site for the chimes at Cornell University.
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See Also on TheCabinet.com
Blog: The Curse of McGraw Mansion (12/07/08)
Available from Amazon.com
The Cornell chimes: In celebration of the hundreth anniversary of McGraw Tower
Bells and chimes with particular reference to those at Cornell University
A History of Cornell
Jennie McGraw Fiske: Her influence upon Cornell University
Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses
Creepy Colleges And Haunted Universities: True Ghost Stories
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Cornell's Jennie McGraw Tower.
The Uris Library at Cornell University.
Entranceway to the Uris Library. An image of Jennie McGraw hangs above the door.
Closeup on the bitter words of the plaque hanging in the entrance of Uris Library.
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The above content is for informational purposes only. Before making any travel arrangements, it is highly recommended that you contact those in charge of the property to check for updated availability and hours of operation. While we do our best to keep this information updated, we cannot guarantee that it is completely valid and up to date. Any destination marked "
Closed to the Public
" is marked that for a reason and we discourage any visits or attempts to gain access to that facility. Similarly, take note of any "
" that may be associated with a destination. Finally, treat any location and its local residents with respect. Any vandalism and/or unruly behavior is completely despicable and only ruins the experience for future visitors.
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