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Big Red Barn celebrates renovation and reopening

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John Carberry
graduate students
Lindsay France/University Photography
Graduate and professional students serve up snacks at a T.G.I.F. (Tell Grads It's Friday) mixer Sept. 12 at the recently renovated Big Red Barn.
Big Red Barn
Lindsay France/University Photography
The Big Red Barn hosts more than 200 events a year for graduate and professional students, alumni and the Cornell community.

Graduate and professional students, facilities staff, contractors and Graduate School staff celebrated the completion of a top-to-bottom renovation of Cornell’s Big Red Barn Graduate and Professional Student Center over the summer at a reception Sept. 18.

The $1.2 million renovation was completed in 67 work days, project manager Brian Watson said. Work commenced May 5 and ended Aug. 15. The barn reopened Aug. 26 to serve returning students.

“The biggest thing that everyone has noticed is that the building is painted and has new shingles and copper trim,” said Big Red Barn Manager Kris Corda. “And I’m very confident that the barn is going to be here for another 100 years.”

Built in 1874 as a carriage house for the A.D. White House, the barn housed a caretaker’s apartment for several years and was later used for alumni gatherings and as a dining facility. The graduate and professional student center moved there from the former Sage Residence Hall in 1992.

Structural damage became evident after a heavy snowfall in 2007, which led to a detailed structural report that was ultimately used for a request for proposals for renovation and rehabilitation work, Watson said. The university committed funding for the project, and design documents for rebuilding the structure were completed in January 2013.

“Kris made it known to us very early on about the feelings graduate students had for this space,” Watson said. “It wasn’t until a meeting we had in December 2013 that I knew what the extent of that was.”

With a dining area and indoor and outdoor seating, the Big Red Barn hosts more than 200 social and cultural events each year, including T.G.I.F. (Tell Grads It’s Friday), trivia nights and speed dating events.

“This is really an important community space,” said Ph.D. candidate Nicole Baran, counsel to the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. “So many students pack into the barn every Friday. There are many events during the week, such as international student coffee hours and family events. Many student groups use the space as well.”

Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth said that there are 5,200 graduate students at Cornell and another 2,000 professional students. In response to the Graduate School’s exit survey, she said, “Over 70 percent of our students say the Big Red Barn has been an important part of their experience at Cornell.”

“A couple of days before work on the barn began,” Knuth said, “I was walking by, it was a windy day and something flew off the roof and landed at my feet – it was a big wad of shingles. I discreetly put that in the garbage can and I thought, ‘Thank goodness this project is getting started.’”

Many of the historic structure’s original components, including the ceiling and flooring, were carefully removed during the renovation and then replaced.

“Each piece of bead board up there on the ceiling was numbered, stored and put back in the exact same spot,” Watson said.

The original 1874 rooster weathervane that sits atop the barn’s cupola was restored; the cupola itself was lifted off the roof with a crane and completely rebuilt, and new roofing, trim, batten siding, structural members and window headers were installed.

The floor was removed and six pipe caissons installed that reach 50 feet underground, concrete was poured, and the flooring was replaced – “to the point that you couldn’t even tell that we did any work on it,” Watson said.

The reception was followed by a grand reopening celebration for graduate and professional students.

“[Dean of Students] Kent Hubbell will sometimes joke, ‘The undergrads get the beautiful Gothic building [Willard Straight Hall], and the graduate students get a one-room barn,’” Baran said. “But we like our little barn. Many other schools do not have spaces where graduate students can come together, and it is hard to build community when you’re all spread out. That is why this space is so important to the graduate and professional student community.”

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