Geneseo’s Power of Place

People stand in a circle at the College Green.

Story by Jim Memmott | Photographs by Keith Walters ’11

For generations, members of our College community have created memories on campus. They embrace them for life.

SUNY Geneseo is set on a hill, bordered by a village main street, farmland and a valley that appears to stretch beyond the horizon. Alumni remember the golden orange sunsets and the rolling landscape. 

“At first, students see it as a landscape of academic buildings. By living in it and experiencing it, it becomes a place, and the values we ascribe to the place are very important,” says David Robertson, professor of geography, who has written often about the power of place.

Robertson is fascinated by how and when those values are assigned; how a space becomes a meaningful place in people’s imaginations, and how affection forms for a location. 

He has studied mining towns — communities with their own particular challenges and charms — and has thought a lot about college towns, like Geneseo, that are far away from urban centers. They are places with their own architecture, rituals and pace.

Geneseo’s campus and its traditions have emerged over time. Begun as the Geneseo Normal and Training School for teachers, it opened Old Main, its first building, in 1871. That structure stood for 80 years and was eventually replaced by other buildings. Over time, too, generations of students and faculty have created memories of places that symbolize their campus experience.

“Place is not just a visual thing,” Robertson says. “It’s also sounds and smells.”

Thus, a carillon heard anywhere may echo the music of the Alumni Carillon in the Sturges Hall clock tower. The smell of burning alfalfa from the fields below also fixes into memory, says Robertson.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the people we find within the place — a friend made, a mentor, a teacher and others who help guide us to new ideas.

Campus locations are much more than a building or prime spot for a splendid view. They are beloved landmarks, where our Geneseo family have met, gathered, learned and sparked discussion. We celebrate some of the special places: 

A Green Space, A Place to Gather 

A second-floor lab in Bailey Hall is a special place for geography students, Robertson says. It’s mostly used by juniors and seniors, who get to know each other as they work on projects. 

The lab is a room with a terrific view, as it looks out on the College Green, the upper quad of the campus. The Green is a good place to play Frisbee, to hold classes in good weather, and for people to relax and enjoy each other’s company. “You can just hang out and watch people,” says Catherine Henry ’19.

It is also a place to come together over issues that are important to the Geneseo community. In 2016, more than 100 students, staff and faculty gathered to speak out against hate. Participants held hands in a circle, providing an open forum for individuals to speak. Recently, the College community gathered to show support of the #MeToo movement.

“It’s a gathering place for students to gather in solidarity about key social issues, offer support, and strengthen community,” says robbie routenberg ’05, the College’s chief diversity officer.

The pendulum in the ISC.

The pendulum in the Integrated Science Center.

Table Talk

A popular stop on the campus tour is the atrium of the Integrated Science Center (ISC). Visitors are often awestruck by the gigantic periodic table that graces three stories of one wall. It is impressive evidence that the sciences are a big presence at Geneseo. Touring students and family members often take out their phones for selfies and pictures.

“When the architects designed the building, they wanted to have items in the atrium that emphasized that it was an Integrated Science Center,” says James Boiani, associate professor of chemistry, who came to Geneseo in 1985.

Consequently, the physics department chose the Foucault pendulum that hangs from the ceiling. Biology selected images that show the growth of an organism. Geology displays various specimens of geological eras at the building’s entrance. Chemistry went with the periodic table.

“To jazz it up a little, I decided to use various colors to identify different types of elements in nature,” Boiani adds. The blue symbols are elements that are solid at room temperatures; red symbols are gasses.

The south side of Welles Hall.

Sun bathes the south side of Welles Hall.

A Cozy Space with History

Chiseled into stone, “Kindergarten” graces the south entrance of Welles Hall, the oldest building on campus. An owl, a symbol for knowledge, is sculpted above.

owl on welles

It is a lasting reminder that Welles, opened in 1932, was once the Winfield Holcomb School of Practice, a place where student teachers got experience teaching students. The building was converted to general use in 1969, though remnants of Holcomb, such as student lockers, remain. 

The School of Practice had two kindergarten rooms off the south entrance. One of those is now the Walter Harding Room, a lounge and meeting room named after Harding, a longtime member of the English Department who was a world-renowned Henry David Thoreau expert. Professor of English Tom Greenfield is a fan of the room, and its ambiance. 

The room has a fireplace, a large table and comfortable furniture. There’s plenty of space for poetry readings, department meetings and receptions. “There’s a charm to it,” Greenfield says. “There’s a coziness. Several departments consider it to be their space. Things get done here.”

Students watch fireworks from standing at the gazebo

New students enjoy fireworks during the First Knight festivities on move-in weekend.

Marry Me

Geneseo has the best sunsets in the world, and the best place to view them is from the gazebo, a structure created by architect Edgar Tafel, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. Tafel also designed the Brodie Fine Arts Building, MacVittie College Union and other campus buildings.

The gazebo is a favorite location on campus. Alumni even return as they look to new phases in their lives. Katie Barnes ’10 and Adam Phillips ’08 met in Wayne Hall in 2007, and started dating. In August 2016, Adam surprised Katie by dropping to one knee and proposing in the gazebo; his brother Ryan Phillips ’19, photographed the event from the top of Sturges Hall. 

Geneseo, says Adam Phillips, “remains an idyllic place for both of us, and even more so after our engagement there.”

For Amy Potter Hartsough ’16 and her husband, Harrison Hartsough ’16, the gazebo was a calming place. Their favorite moments, he said, were when the “red and orange pastels” mingled after the sun was gone. 

“It makes you look at something besides your need to read or study or speed onto the next event,” he says. “It was a spot that quiets you.” 

Leaves on the ground frame Sturges Hall and the Sturges Quad on a fall day

An iconic fall day in Sturges Quad. The Seuss Spruce, Sturges Hall and the Painted Tree are visible.

In the Sturges Quad

“There is one spot on campus that makes me feel completely present,” says Sarah Frank, associate director of student life.”

That is the Sturges Quad. 

“Depending on the season, there are flower petals, dry leaves, or water puddles on the path,” she says. “The lamplights or sun cast unique shadows on the paved walkway to the ivy-covered bridge. I just love that.”

The Sturges Quad is home to the Seuss Spruce, which resembles a Dr. Seuss tree illustration, after a 1991 snowstorm made it grow in a unique way.

An amble away, the Greek Tree, or painted tree, is coated in paint wielded by members of Greek organizations and other groups who paint their letters or promote their cause.

“It’s a physical manifestation of the pride that fraternities and sororities feel for their organizations,” says Bethany Hettinger, interim coordinator of fraternal life and off-campus services. “The tree is traditionally painted in the evening, after dark, so that it’s a surprise to the campus community the following day. Part of the tree’s tradition and mysticism is that you never actually see the tree getting painted, except when your own chapter paints it.”

Heidi Grossman Cambareri ’92 and her Sigma Kappa sisters painted it in 1990, after they became an official Greek organization on campus. All these years later, “it feels like a legacy, knowing that my paint and my sorority are there in the layers,” says Cambareri.

The painted tree tradition never fades. Thirty years after graduation, Joanne “Micki” Agresta ’80 was on campus to celebrate the Alpha Kappa Phi (AGO) 125th reunion. She and a handful of sisters bought paint supplies, and waited for nightfall to write AKPhi. Former President Christopher Dahl walked by, mid paint. 

“We panicked, as if we were teenagers again getting caught by the principal!” says Agresta. “He was so gracious and came over and chatted with us. We laughed shared stories of our days at Geneseo. Our sorority had such an amazing bond. Fifty years later, we are still close as sisters could be. The tree symbolizes our bond, often made during our nights of guarding the tree until daybreak. Our memories of Geneseo are some of the best of our lives.”

 

Author: geneseoscene

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