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A visit to Ithaca should certainly include a visit to the Cornell campus, and a walking tour of the campus with a student guide would provide a good introduction. Since I had not been back to Ithaca for over twenty years, I was struck by the number of new buildings that had somehow magically appeared around the campus. One of the more controversial was the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, whose strikingly modern design by I.M Pei contrasts sharply with its traditional ivy-covered neighbors.
While you are on campus, be sure to stop by the Carl A. Kroch Library, a remarkable three-story building constructed completely underground. When the library staff proposed a new building to house some of Cornell's special book collections, they wanted the new library to be close to the existing libraries, which are located on the historic Arts Quad. The university adminitrators agreed to the new building, but only on condition that there be no visible intrusion on the Arts Quad. Hence the decision to go down, rather than up.
The building was designed by Shepley-Bulfinch-Richardson and Abbott, the same firm that designed two underground museum buildings for the Smithsonian. Their goal was to create a space that felt like a traditional above-ground building, and they have succeeded brilliantly. Light floods into the interior from four light wells, whose roofs are the only visible external evidence of the library's existence. So successful were the designers in creating the illusion of an above-ground building that when the building had its first fire drill, people ran down to the lowest level to get out.
Perhaps even more noteworthy than the building is the accessibility of the books. Visitors and students alike are welcome to enjoy not just the building but any of the books in the special collections, including the rare book collections. I wish more university libraries were as generous. Look for the entrance to Kroch Library inside Olin Library, as there is no direct outside entrance.
If you spend any time at all on campus, you will almost certainly hear the Cornell Chimes. Housed in the McGraw Bell Tower are nineteen bells, with concerts three times a day. The chimes are played by student and alumni chimesmasters, whose selections range from Bach to the Cornell Alma Mater to Happy Birthday. To play the bells, the chimesmaster uses both hands plus one foot to press on long wooden bars that are connected to the clappers in the bells, a feat that requires both musical talent, manual dexterity, and just plain hard work. You can watch the chimesmasters in action during the concerts, when the bell tower is open to anyone with the physical stamina to climb the 161 steps to the playing chamber, located just below the bells.
One of the other great pleasures of the Cornell Campus is Cornell Plantations. The Plantations encompass nearly 3000 acres and include an arboretum, botanical garden, and extensive natural areas set aside as nature preserves. The Plantations also include the woodlands, gorges and lakeside trails bordering the central campus. When we were there in early June, the peony garden and the rhododendron dell were particularly lovely, but there are interesting things to see in the Plantations throughout the year. You can pick up a map at Plantations Headquarters on Plantations Road. Don't miss the excellent herb garden just outside the headquarters building; it is one of the nicest I've ever seen.
A little farther afield a walk through Sapsucker Woods, the home of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, will give you a chance to spot a great horned owl, a blue-winged warbler, or some of the dozens of other birds who make their homes nearby. The paths are open twenty-four hours a day, with dawn and dusk perhaps the best times to enjoy this quiet sanctuary.