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Sphinx Head Tomb

New York, United States of America
1 of 9

The 900 Stewart Avenue is a building in Ithaca, New York, noted for its unique Egyptian Revival architecture, its dramatic placement partway down a cliff, and being the residence of astronomer Carl Sagan. The building is on a ledge about 15 m below street level, overlooking Fall Creek and Ithaca Falls. It is part of the Cornell Heights Historic District.

Egyptian Revival Architecture

The building was built as the meeting place of the Sphinx Head Society, a Cornell University secret society formed in 1890. The society had discussed building a meeting place since the early 1900s, and bought the site in 1908. At the time, the site was far away from campus, secluded by trees, and lacking neighbors across the gorge. After raising $25,000 they hired local architect J. Lakin Bainbridge, who also designed the Tompkins County Courthouse. Ground was broken in 1925, and the building was finished in 1926. The design was intended to resemble an Egyptian tomb, perhaps partly as a delayed expression of the popularity of Egyptian Revival architecture in the late 1800s, perhaps partly as a resurgence in popular interest in Classical Egypt after the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, and perhaps partly because of similar structures at Yale and Dartmouth. The building only had a single door, and no windows. Eventually, the tomb became less useful to the society, due to its remote location, the lack of nearby parking, and the increased property taxes and maintenance costs. In 1969, the society sold the property to the next-door neighbor, physicist Robert Wilson. He used it as a sculpture studio before selling it to architect and design professor Steve Mensch in 1979.

Carl Sagan

Astronomer Carl Sagan bought it in 1981, on returning to Cornell from several years in Los Angeles making the documentary Cosmos. He used the complex as a residence for many years, struggling to find an architect to help him renovate it. Eventually, he hired Atelier Jullian and Pendleton, whose principal, Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente, had been a student of Le Corbusier. The architects designed a new, separate residence for Sagan in Cayuga Heights, and prepared an extensive, two-stage redesign plan for the tomb to turn it into a study for him and his wife, Ann Druyan. Mensch's additions were demolished, with the exception of the new entry staircase. New windows and skylights were added. On top of the tomb, a small teak penthouse was built, inspired by "images of canal barges and of boats on the lake." The renovation, which took place from 1990 to 1992, was featured in a photo spread in Architectural Digest. The second phase of the renovation, which was to include a series of additional buildings terraced above and below the tomb, was never built. After Sagan's death, his papers remained in the building until being transferred to the Library of Congress in 2012.

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bostjan, November 5th, 2018
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