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Few universities in the United States have a richer theatre tradition than Cornell. University theatre was almost unknown in this country in 1909 when a dedicated group of students formed the Cornell Dramatic Club. Annual contests for original plays began in 1917 and continue today. The commitment to the academic exploration of theatre began when the first theatre courses were offered in 1922 and a PhD program was added in 1929. Courses in dance have been offered since the 1930s, and the study of cinema was added to the curriculum in 1953. Plans for the Cornell Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts were begun in the early 1980s and, thanks largely to legions of alumni who donated, the building opened to the public in 1989.
The Schwartz Center was designed by James Stirling of Stirling & Wilford Associates of London, considered one of the most innovative architects in the world today. Stirling's plan was based on that of a classical Italian hill village, its central commons area containing the church with its tower and adjoining octagonal or cylindrical baptistery.