In 1911, Mrs. Olivia Slocum Russell Sage donated $300,000 (roughly $7.5M in 2018 adjusted for inflation) to the University for the construction of a women's dormitory. At her request, the building was named after her husband's mother, Prudence Risley. The building was opened to students in 1913. It was unusually luxurious, with sculptures and expensive furnishings in common areas, many of which were donated by Cornell co-founder Andrew Dickson White.
In 1969, there was a group of students at Cornell who wanted to live together in a place on campus where they could indulge their artistic and creative interests when not working hard on their "not so artistic" fields of study. Judith Goodman Mecklenburger (Class of '71) was most influential in these quest for an art house to share with some of her more artistic friends. When she asked Cornell about the house she wanted, they said it had just been given away, but offered Risley instead. The cost of running the fancy all-female dorm was too much, and Cornell was going to shut Risley down.
In 1970, under the guidance of Ruth Darling and Judith Goodman Mecklenburger , the University converted Risley into a co-ed creative-arts-themed dormitory, the campus's first program house. In that first year, (1970-1971), there were over 1000 applications for less than 200 spaces. To this day, in 2020, we are still the largest and most popular program house on campus.
After several attempts to develop an acceptable plan for running Risley as an arts dorm, and much Cornell paperwork aided by Darling, Goodman and her friends finally got her vision of Risley approved. In the first year, the college received over 1000 applications for roughly 200 spots in the building. Their system of government in 1970 is similar to the current one today, though there have been many amendments to the Risley Charter in the intervening years.
Notable former Risley residents from before the creation of Risley Residential College include Margaret Bourke-White, Elspeth Huxley, Barbara McClintock, Helen Reichert, and Janet Reno. Notable residents from after the creation of the Residential College include Matt Ruff, Mia Korf, Jamie Silverstein, Christopher Reeve, Andre Balazs, Madalyn Aslan, Duo Dickinson, Andrew C. Greenberg, and Jared Emerson-Johnson.
Whether your interest is dance, music, theatre, fine or visual arts, Risley provides a supportive environment for creating, performing, and exploring. You don't have to be a theatre, art, or music major to live in Risley; its 194 residents are from many walks for life and have a variety of interests and talents.
Since its inception in 1970, the college has resided in Risley Hall, a beautiful castle-like building built in 1913. Risley houses a popular 81-seat student-run theatre, a stained-glass shop, two music practice rooms, a multimedia studio, a recording studio, a print shop, wood and metal shops, an art studio, a darkroom, a video-editing studio, a sewing shop, and a pottery studio. All of that, and one of the best-kept secrets on campus - Risley Dining, a dining room modeled after the Christ Church Refectory at Oxford University.
'Risleyites'' are proud not only of its rich history, but also the traditions that make it such a unique and special place. Annual events such as the MasqueRave - Halloween-themed bash, or the traditional reading of Handel's Messiah are open to the entire Cornell community. There are also numerous house activities like Found Coffee, concerts, theatrical and dance productions, and the twice-annual showing of cult film classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show complete with a live performance.