Re-envisioning the Thomas Commons

Building on the success of the Extraordinary Opportunities campaign, the college is re-envisioning The Commons renovation and expansion project. New plans are being made to serve future generations with a state-of-the-art building that further differentiates Cornell from other liberal arts colleges.

“The Commons has strategic importance in student life and the ability of the college to recruit and retain students,” said John Smith ’71, chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees. “Renewing this building is the college’s top priority.”

Initiated as a key component of the Extraordinary Opportunities Campaign, The Commons project has already begun to reshape the building and its functions. However, as student population continues to grow and place new demands on Cornell’s student center, the college is enlarging its plans.

More than $12 million was successfully raised through the campaign for The Commons, including a leadership gift from Richard Small ’50 and honorary alumna and trustee Norma Thomas Small to name The Commons in honor of Norma’s parents. An additional $5 million must be raised by fall 2011 to move the project forward.

Thanks to the gift from the Smalls, after 45 years The Commons now has a formal name: the Thomas Commons.

The Commons has a new name --Thomas Commons-- and a new plan for renovation and expansion. The Orange Carpet, however, will remain the building's unique hub (seen here in 2008 during a visit from stars Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore). (Photo by Blake Rasmussen '05)
The Commons has a new name –Thomas Commons– and a new plan for renovation and expansion. The Orange Carpet, however, will remain the building’s unique hub (seen here in 2008 during a visit from stars Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore). (Photo by Blake Rasmussen ’05)

“My dad, Cecil J. Thomas, came to Cornell in 1956 as buildings and grounds superintendent and he always felt it was one of the best decisions he ever made. He loved Cornell and his job from day one. Soon after The Commons opened in 1966, it became obvious to dad that there were several design deficiencies with the building. He dealt with these problems until his ‘final’ retirement in early 1990,” said Norma Thomas Small. “How pleased he would be if he were alive to see a beautifully renovated and enlarged Commons named for him and my mother, June.”

Student programming and expectations have changed dramatically since The Commons opened in 1966 to a student population of less than 1,000. What began as a social center and dining hall has expanded to include space to exercise, attend class, and find goods and services not envisioned when the building was designed.

With the exception of converting a recreation room to a fitness center and making cosmetic improvements to the Ratt, Orange Carpet, and dining areas, very few changes have been made to the facility in more than four decades. Planned improvements to the Thomas Commons will allow for a new façade and flow that will add visual appeal and warmth, better blending into the historic Hilltop campus. The new Commons will introduce marketplace dining with multiple choices, freshly prepared, for students and guests at each meal. It will feature flexible multipurpose space for larger events. Upgrades inside and out will add energy and demonstrate a high priority on nurturing students by providing a full range of modern services, from wellness to wireless access.

“The Commons is the heart of life at Cornell. It is the place where faculty, staff, and students come together to meet and to celebrate. It is also where many friendships are formed and deepen,” said Chris Carlson, professor emeritus of sociology and special assistant to the president. “As a faculty member I often held review sessions on the Orange Carpet, sitting cross-legged with students talking about course material until late into the evening. In this informal setting our talks ranged over all kinds of subjects and this is where I often was able to get to know students the best. In all our wonderful diversity, The Commons knits us together into a community.”

Cornell is known and respected for having a caring and engaged living and learning community and the renewed Thomas Commons will more accurately reflect Cornell’s campus and its historic mission “to provide a caring environment for living and learning.”