High on a hill overlooking downtown Ithaca presides Cornell University, built around a long, lush green lined with ivy-covered buildings. The views from here are especially fine at twilight, when Cayuga’s waters glow with the setting sun and the gorges begin a slow fade into black.
Cornell was founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew D. White, who vowed to establish an “institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” In so doing, they challenged a number of long-standing mores. Their university was one of the first to be nonsectarian; to offer instruction to all qualified applicants, regardless of sex, race, or class; and to feature courses in everything from agriculture to the classics.
Traffic and information booths are located at each entrance to the central campus. Except in a few metered areas, parking is by permit only; purchase a permit at the traffic booths. Visitors to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum can park in metered spaces out front. To tour the campus, contact the Information and Referral Center (Day Hall, Tower Rd. and East Ave., 607/254-4636, www.cornell.edu).
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
At the northern end of the Cornell campus reigns the Johnson Museum of Art (University Ave., 607/255-6464, www.museum.cornell.edu, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun., free admission), housed in a striking modern building designed by I. M. Pei. The museum features especially strong collections of Asian and contemporary art but is also a teaching museum, containing a little bit of almost everything.
The Asian collection is situated on the 5th floor, where big picture windows open out onto 360-degree views of Cayuga Lake and the surrounding countryside. Among the many exquisite objects on display are funerary urns from the T’ang dynasty, silk paintings from 19th-century Japan, and bronze Buddhas from 15th-century Thailand.
Wilder Brain Collection
Those interested in the odd and macabre will want to step into Cornell’s Uris Hall, East Avenue and Tower Road, and ride an elevator up to the second floor. In a small case to the rear of the building are the eight surviving stars of the Burt Green Wilder brain collection, which once numbered about 1,600 floating specimens.
Wilder was Cornell’s first zoologist. He began assembling his collection in the late 1800s in the hopes of proving the size and shape of a person’s brain were related to his or her race, sex, intelligence, and personality. Alas, his studies only disproved his theories, and in 1911 he rocked the scientific world by declaring that there was no difference between the brains of black and white men.
The pickled collection includes the extraordinarily large brain of criminal Edward Howard Ruloff, who was hanged in Binghamton on May 18, 1871. Ruloff allegedly killed his wife and daughter and was convicted of killing three men. He was also highly intelligent, and had published several scholarly papers despite his lack of formal education.
Burt Green Wilder’s brain is also in the collection. Considerably smaller than Ruloff’s, it sits yellowing in viscous formaldehyde. The creator has joined his creation.
Just north of the Cornell campus, a 2,800-acre oasis of green (1 Plantations Rd., off Rte. 366, 607/255-3020, dawn–dusk daily, free admission) encompasses an arboretum, specialty gardens devoted to everything from wildflowers to poisonous plants, and nature trails winding through the Fall Creek gorge. Pick up maps in the gift shop.
Sapsucker Woods Bird Sanctuary
At the eastern edge of Ithica lies a world-class center for the study, appreciation, and conservation of birds. Not everything is open to the public, but key attractions include 4.2 miles of trails through the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary and the Stuart Observatory, which overlooks a waterfowl pond and bird-feeding garden.
The 220-acre Sapsucker Woods were named by bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1901 after he spotted a pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers—unusual for the region—nesting in the area. Sapsuckers continue to breed here each year. Near the woods you’ll find a visitors center (159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., 607/254-2473, www.birds.cornell.edu, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.) where you can pick up maps and view paintings by Agassiz Fuertes.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition