My View from South Hill
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Ninety-nine and three-quarter years ago, in November 1910, Grant Egbert decided to purchase the Ithaca home of Judge Douglass Boardman, making it the architectural centerpiece of what was then known as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. As founding president of the Conservatory, Egbert understood a basic truth that we still appreciate today: you cannot offer a quality education without quality facilities.
The purchase price was steep for the fledgling conservatory. To buy the house it was necessary to borrow $11,400, with a further commitment of $7,000 in debt to renovate the building for its new purpose. But Boardman House proved to be a good investment, and for the next sixty years it served as the hub of Ithaca College’s downtown campus. For the first thirty of those years, it was known as the Music Building, where generations of students took their lessons. President Leonard Job moved his office there in 1943, and the house came to be known by postwar students as the Admininstration (or “Ad”) Building even though most of the rooms continued to be used for music lessons.
In the 1960s, as the College relocated to the present campus on South Hill, Boardman House had its third incarnation as the Ithaca College Museum of Art, home to exhibits by Paul Klee and Andy Warhol among others. Ithaca College closed the museum and sold Boardman House in 1972 after one final show starring the house itself, recreated in its full Victorian glory.
Boardman House is just a few blocks from my home on Fountain Place, and I have often walked past while admiring its graceful columns and front steps. Earlier this summer, as I took a leisurely vacation-induced walk with my son Liam in his stroller, I noticed a small sign on the massive front doors: “Push to Enter.” That was all the invitation I needed to encounter Ithaca College history!
Truth be told, there is not a lot to see in Boardman House today. The building serves as offices for a number of attorneys, CPAs and counselors. Simply walking the hallways and going up and down the stairs, though, was enough to bring the ghosts of Boardman House fully to life. Grant Egbert walked these halls, giving instruction in violin and no doubt listening through the heavy doors to gauge the progress of students in other instruments. Here was Leonard Job’s office on the second floor, the place where he worked tirelessly to earn full accreditation for Ithaca College and where he dreamed about building a campus on South Hill. Howard Dillingham frequented these halls beginning in 1951 first as President Job’s assistant, then as his vice president, and finally as his successor. Mrs. Howard, the Dean of Students who took a personal interest in every student, had her office close to the front door on the first floor.
Even more than the shades of those leaders who made Ithaca College what it is today, I could feel the presence of the students who practiced and socialized together. Here is the snack bar where Jack Holcomb, Vern Hinkle, Jim McKenna, and Jerry Rachmiel – all class of ’56 -- started the day with coffee and doughnuts. Jack reports that “my friends and I would often sit together in a booth and begin to harmonize with a barbershop tune or two. [This wasn't] always appreciated by the music teachers [who] … would come down and remind us to leave the harmony to the pianists or violinists.”
Over there is the room where Willis Traphagen, now principal tuba at the Austin Civic Orchestra, would hide in the dark until Jimmy the custodian went home for the evening. After Jimmy left, Will would turn on the lights and practice all night long. And here are the rooms where Jack Eaton ’53, Sandy MacDonald ’60, and so many other students took lessons from Frank Page, Craig McHenry, Walter Beeler, Joseph Tague, and others. Terry Patala ’52, remembers that she quivered with anxiety every week before and during her lessons with Frank Page. Fran Cicero (now LaPlaca) ’60 is still grateful that Professor Tague gave her a semester’s lessons in left-hand piano pieces after she cut her right hand on a water glass and could not use it for several months.
That spot on the front lawn is where Arnie Heitz ’55 proposed to his wife Lee in December 1954. They married the next month and this past January celebrated their 55th anniversary.
And then there are those perfectly proportioned front steps and porch columns. It was on that porch that Walter Alexander ’53/MM ’60 sat as a freshman in 1949, waiting with other IC students for the start of his first orchestra rehearsal. His recollections match those of hundreds of IC students who sat before and after him on that same porch :
It was a clear fall day [and] … the grand wisteria plant that had woven its way around the pillars, over the doorway and across the bricks provided an idyllic setting. … I was … highly anticipating my first rehearsal with the IC Orchestra, and more than a bit awed by the upper class … orchestra members who were waiting there. I was silent, listening to the banter, happy to belong as a newly minted IC student.
Walter’s memories continue with an unexpected twist. For his full recollection and those of other alumni who have written to me about Boardman House, please click on the sidebar. You will also find below additional photos of the building and its snack bar, sent to me by alumni or taken from past issues of The Cayugan.
When I stand today on the grounds of Boardman House I hear the voices of alumni who remind me that I am only the temporary custodian of a grand tradition that has shaped the lives of thousands of students over the years. From the homey comfort of coffee and doughnuts for breakfast to the unforgettable moments in one’s first day at college, from the nerves that accompany performing for one’s professor to a proposal of marriage: Boardman House is more than brick and mortar – it was for many years the heart of Ithaca College.
And so, as we prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of IC’s purchase of Boardman House, let’s celebrate the life-changing moments that have taken place there. During Alumni and Homecoming Weekend, this coming October 1-3, I am inviting every IC alum who attended classes downtown to have breakfast with me in my home on Fountain Place. After breakfast, we will ride (or walk) the few blocks to the old Administration Building, to share some old memories and create new ones with a group photograph. Maybe we can evoke the spirits of Presidents Egbert, Job and Dillingham, as well as of Frank Page, Craig McHenry, Walter Beeler and all the others who taught and studied there!
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