Tjaden Hall, formerly known as Franklin Hall, was built during a university building boom in the late 19th century. In 1880 the executive committee of the university designated $50,000 to be expended on the construction and outfitting of a “physical laboratory” to the west of Sibley Hall.
Named for America’s first great scientist, Benjamin Franklin, this first home for physics and chemistry on the Cornell campus was designed by the Reverend Charles Babcock, the university’s first professor of architecture, who designed several campus buildings during his tenure.
Although Babcock’s plans were approved in May 1881, ground was not broken until the following October. By the time the building was completed in 1883, a total of $100,923 had been spent, more than twice the amount originally budgeted. The overage seems to have resulted at least in part from President Andrew Dickson White’s insistence on the use of stone instead of brick for the structure’s exterior, and his desire to incorporate large medallions featuring likenesses of scientific heroes including Franklin, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Luigi Galvani, and James Clerk Maxwell. These distinctive tributes in stone still adorn the building.
In 1890 the Department of Chemistry left Franklin Hall to take up residence in a new building. In 1906 the physics department followed, leaving Franklin Hall to become a part of the then College of Architecture, where it would become home to the Department of Art.
In 1981 the Victorian Gothic structure became Olive Tjaden Hall, named for Olive Tjaden Van Sickle ’25, a pioneering woman architect and artist whose substantial gift largely made possible the renovation of the building in 1998.