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Elmira College, Cowles Hall Restoration


Elmira, NY


70,000 sf


  • AIA NYS Chapter Design Award, Reuse/Historic Preservation, 2015

Elmira College is the oldest American college offering university degrees to women, one of four collegiate “Pillars of Access" that opened higher education doors to those previously excluded. Cowles Hall originally comprised the entire college: reception hall/chapel, “society” rooms, classrooms, offices, dining hall, and even student residences. Its signature feature was the 6-story octagonal central rotunda surrounded with high windows and an oculus illuminating the first-floor chapel. Stretching technology for its time, internal hanging steel rods suspended five levels of the octagonal rotunda from the cupola’s heavy timber roof trusses.

The College’s previous efforts to maintain the unique structure, with nearly 90 structural and repair interventions on its records, were not able to resolve the stresses imposed on the fragile assembly. Over its 150-year life, the building moved and settled resulting in differential elevations up to 12-inches on the same level. Dilapidated wood floor structures and framing, amid leaking roofs and foundations, rendered the facility unsafe for occupancy. It had been vacant more than 20 years when the College determined to take unprecedented action to save its’ legacy landmark structure.

Cowles Hall exemplifies the integration of structural engineering, architecture, and interior design. To replace the entire interior structure, an exoskeleton was constructed to support the exterior historic assemblies.  The interior was re-imagined with a palette of historical materials suitable for the landmark structure.

The program concentrated on recreating a variety of gathering spaces for use by the campus and surrounding community. Two major elements stand out. The Rotunda reconstruction replicates the original character of the octagonal design without loss of the exterior masonry cupola and fenestration. The Chapel is artfully concealed within the original multi-story façade with custom designed chapel pews, wood and stone carvings, light fixtures and statuary. The chapel is additionally adorned with arched stained-glass interior windows that tell the story of the significance of the College in our national heritage and to the community. Formal and ceremonial spaces within this significant historic structure are now available for public access and appreciation of this unique landmark.

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