Uris Historical Tour: Remembering Jennie McGraw Fiske

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On October 7, 1868, at the inauguration ceremonies for Cornell University, Francis Finch, friend and legal advisor to Ezra Cornell and later, Dean of the Cornell Law School, presented the University with a very special gift on behalf of a young benefactor. Miss Jennie McGraw had given Cornell a chime of nine bells. They were played for the first time that afternoon from a wooden scaffold set on the site now occupied by Uris Library.

In his address Mr. Finch paid tribute to Jennie McGraw’s generosity:

“These bells are now yours [Cornell]--given cheerfully, given gladly, given hopefully; given with the best wishes of a kind heart to all to whom their chime shall ring….Let the memory of their giver make them sacred; let them ring always harmonies and never discords; let them infuse into the college life, and interweave among the sober threads of practical study and toil some love of art and lines of grace and beauty; let them teach the excellence of order and system… I give these bells, [on] behalf of her whose name I trust their melody will always commemorate….”

 

According to Cornell historian Morris Bishop, the chime was “the first to peal over an American campus.” A thankful Andrew D. White, Cornell’s first president, would request that the first song played each day be, “The Cornell Changes.” Adapted from a popular carillon tune that White had heard in London, it was soon rechristened, “The Jennie McGraw Rag” in honor of their donor.

Today the music of the bells carries her name across the campus, and her story and the legacy of her gifts to Cornell are memorialized in a collection of monuments found along the crest of Libe Slope.

Jennie McGraw shared here father’s enthusiasm for the new university and his interest in its library. John McGraw, a founding trustee of Cornell, had provided the money to build McGraw Hall, located between Morrill and White Halls in today’s Arts Quad. When it was completed in 1872, the library was moved there from cramped quarters in Morrill Hall, and Jennie’s bells were placed in its tower, which had been specifically designed to house them. The library and the chime would reside in McGraw Hall until the new library building and its tower were completed in 1891.

Both father and daughter had intended to endow the university’s library with generous funds to build and maintain its collections, but neither lived to see this work accomplished. When John McGraw died in 1877, Jennie inherited the bulk of his estate. Working with many of Cornell’s “founding fathers”--Ezra Cornell, Andrew D. White, Judge Douglass Boardman, and her father’s former business partner and fellow Cornell trustee, Henry Williams Sage, Jennie prepared to continue and expand her father’s charitable donations to the university.

But she died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 41 just fours years later. Her will revealed some of her intentions:

"I also give and bequeath to said Cornell University $200,000 in trust to be securely invested and known as the McGraw Library fund, the interest and income thereof to be applied to the support, maintenance, and increase of the library of said university….I give, devise, and bequeath all the rest, residue, and remainder of my property (if any there shall be) to Cornell University."

Her combined gifts to Cornell were estimated to be at least one million dollars—an astounding sum at that time—and included funds for building a student hospital and a monument to her father and Ezra Cornell. It was also presumed to include the mansion she commissioned architect William Henry Miller to build on the hillside just west of campus. With this bequest, it appeared that Andrew D. White’s dream of a great library building would be realized.

Unfortunately, there were complications. The size of her gift exceeded the university’s endowment limits set in its charter, which would require state legislative action to be amended. And in the waning months of her life, Jennie McGraw had married Cornell’s first University Librarian, Willard Fiske. Troubled by the university trustees’ actions to secure their bequest, he contested the will and spent the next nine years in litigation with the university.

When the United States Supreme Court ruled in Fiske’s favor, it appeared that many of Jennie’s gifts to the university were lost. Most of the estate formerly pledged to Cornell went to her husband, who had retired to a villa in Florence to continue his avocation of book collecting. The mansion intended as the university’s museum went to Jennie’s extended family, who subsequently sold the building along with the artwork and furnishings that she had collected for it.

Outraged by this outcome, Henry Williams Sage, the Ithaca businessman and university trustee who had been a financial advisor to Ezra Cornell and the McGraw’s, took it upon himself to fulfill Jennie’s plans. Sage donated the money to build the new library, hired William Henry Miller to design the Romanesque structure that we now know as Uris Library, and established an endowment for the purchasing of library books.

In the fall of 1891 the university opened its first library building and the chimes were transferred to their now permanent home in the new Library Tower. Recognized around the world as a symbol of Cornell University, it was renamed McGraw Tower in 1962.

Henry Sage had dedicated his efforts to Jennie and paid tribute to her with three library memorials. A plaque mounted at the entrance to Uris offers Sage’s version of the “Great Will Case” that reads:

"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."

Directly above the doors is a bronze portrait of Jennie by American sculptor Anne Whitney. Cornell was founded as a non-sectarian institution, but here at the entrance to the university’s Romanesque cathedral of books is the library’s guardian angel and patron saint.

The third memorial is more subtle and perhaps the most telling of the three. Located high above the main entrance to Uris, three monograms with carved initials honor those most responsible for providing Cornell with its library: ADW for Andrew Dickson White, HWS for Henry Williams Sage, and JMG for Jennie McGraw. Sage intentionally left off the F of Jennie McGraw Fiske’s married name as a slight to Willard Fiske.

Fiske’s placed his own memorial to his wife inside the library in the Great Reading Room, now known as the Dean Reading Room. Over the fireplace that is behind the current Circulation Desk is a marble bust of Jennie that honors her as a Cornell benefactress.

Funds from Jennie’s estate were used by the university to purchase additional bells for the chime, to set up an endowment for a student hospital, and to build an addition to Sage Chapel. Memorials at the tower entrance to Uris Library, outside the Gannett Health Services building in Ho Plaza, and on the north wall of Sage Chapel commemorate her generosity.

Sage Chapel’s Memorial Antechapel, built in 1883, is the final resting place for Ezra Cornell, Jennie McGraw Fiske, her father, her husband, and other Cornell dignitaries. Inside the chapel are several sarcophagi with reclining statues. A recumbent figure of Jennie, sculpted by Sir Moses Ezekiel rests below a stained glass window that pictures her surrounded by her nine bells.

If Jennie’s original intentions were thwarted by the legal case that challenged her will, they were more than fulfilled by another legal document: her husband’s last will and testament. Upon Willard Fiske’s death in 1904, he left Cornell nearly $600,000, a sum that exceeded the amount of money he had inherited from Jennie. In addition, he bequeathed his unrivaled collections of Dante, Petrarch, and Icelandic books and manuscripts to the Cornell University Library.

Jennie McGraw Fiske was a true supporter of Ezra’s dream. Through her generosity and good intentions, and the philanthropy they inspired, Jennie McGraw Fiske, was able to provide Cornell with its original chime, its student hospital, the University Library, and several priceless book collections and library endowments. Although today’s students may not realize it, her gifts are key fixtures of the Cornell tradition that remains today.