History of student housing

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This article documents the rather interesting history of student housing at Columbia.


College Hall

The first proto-Columbia dormitories were available to students of King's College. College Hall, King's second home, was a building that outshone its colonial counterparts in every respect when it was erected in 1760. Student quarters were no exception. The layout of the original College Hall was a row of rooms, of dimensions 18' x 21'. Attached to these giant rooms were two smaller anterooms, measuring 9' x 9', next to each other. The total size of each of these suites of three rooms was 540 square feet. When these rooms were assigned to students, the 378-s.f. room was designated as a 'sleeping area' while each 81-s.f. anteroom was a personal study. Yes, Columbia once boasted 540-s.f. doubles.

Another reason for the size of these rooms was that the professors and the President also lived within College Hall. In this case, the two 81-s.f. anterooms served as a bedchamber and as a study, and the 378-s.f. main room served as a classroom by day and a living room by night. Yet, they were still 540-s.f. rooms. Small wonder then, that a few years after King's College was reconstituted as Columbia College, the faculty and President took over College Hall entirely. In fact, the first thing Columbia's ninth President, Charles King, did was to move his rather sizable family into College Hall. And when King presided over the move to the Midtown campus, the first thing he did then was order the construction of a 25-room President's House. Undergraduate student housing at Columbia, on the other hand, was deprioritized.

Midtown campus

By the time the Midtown campus reached full-build during the end of Frederick A. P. Barnard's presidency, student housing had made something of a comeback. Hamilton Hall, a dormitory, had been erected, but provided nowhere near enough space to hold Columbia's exploding student population. The statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of our present Hamilton Hall once stood in front of the other Hamilton Hall. Moreover, Barnard (and his two successors, Low, and Butler) were at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to undergraduates, proposing more than a few times to transform the undergraduate college into a 'fast-track' into the graduate and professional faculties, moving it out to Westchester County, or disbanding it altogether.

Morningside Heights campus

Seth Low

By the time Seth Low assumed the Presidency, undergraduate life had taken a different turn. Paraphrasing the popular Biblical passage, Low declared "A university that is set upon a hill cannot be hid." His new Columbia University, moved to spacious and grand quarters on the hill of Morningside Heights, would be a university dedicated solely to the prosperity of the city and its education of its inhabitants. Low wanted no dormitories. Rather, he envisioned that students would come to Columbia for a day of classes, and then return home to their lives in the city. Where Butler Library now stands was once a vista where one could view the rise of New York City all the way to the tip of lower Manhattan. Low envisioned that students would, upon graduation, exit from the campus through that opening, back into the city from whence they came. By the 1930s, that view was hideously obstructed by row houses that clashed rather egregiously with the rest of Columbia's neoclassical architecture, and thus provided the logical place to build Columbia's new research library.

During Low's presidency plans were made to erect Hamilton Court, a private 10 story dormitory on Amsterdam Avenue. When these plans fell through, the trustees pressured Low into commissioning dorms on campus. However, the McKim, Mead, and White designed Grove Dormitories were never built since Low never put the effort into raising the money, and neither did the alumni.

Nicholas Murray Butler

Under President Nicholas Murray Butler, who took office in 1902, Columbia set about trying to make Columbia more of a national university, and this required providing housing to students. Providentially, Marcellus Hartley Dodge CC 1903 and his aunt Helen Hartley Jenkins, decided to fund the construction of the first dormitory on the Morningside Heights campus - Hartley Hall. The Trustees matched the effort and funded the construction of companion building Livingston Hall. 10 years later they would be joined by equally proportioned Furnald Hall across South Field. These would prove to be the last "small" purpose-built dormitories on the campus.

In the 1920s, Columbia would build two more dormitories. These two new buildings would establish a pattern of space maximizing utilitarianism that has been the hallmark of dorm construction ever since. John Jay Hall, and the companion Johnson Hall were "skyscraper dorms", with John Jay in particular dwarfing its neighboring buildings.

Columbia's construction program in the early 20th century may have been the first major effort to house a significant number of undergraduates at any leading American university. The Harvard we know today, with its Houses fronting the Charles River, was not built until the 1920s. The same is also true for Yale's residential colleges. Yet a full two decades before, Columbia had already taken the step of housing its undergraduates.

Disrepair and Modern-day residence halls

The passage of decades in between the construction of purpose built student housing, as between Hartley/Livingston and John Jay/Johnson Halls, became a precedent. Over the next 75 years, Columbia would only build 4 more purpose built dormitory buildings (and all of them in the utilitarian 'skyscraper' mold of John Jay and Johnson) - "New Hall" (Carman Hall) in 1959, the massive East Campus in 1981, Schapiro Hall in 1988, and finally Broadway Residence Hall in 2000. All other buildings added to undergraduate housing stock over this period are converted structures.

Over the course of this slow building program, the condition of Columbia's student housing stock severely deteriorated by the 60s, and was still abysmal through the 1980s. The poor quality of housing was even cited as a cause of 1968 protests by the Cox Commission inquiry. Dean Peter Pouncey wrote in 1973 that students were known to say that the dorms must have been designed "by an architect morbidly conditioned by Humanities A to blend the more oppressive features of Dante's Inferno with Kafka's diseased imaginings[.]"[1] And so Columbia set about converting doubles into singles, and scrounging up money to add floor lounges in each dormitory during the 70s, but this meant kicking graduate students out of John Jay and Furnald into "temporary" buildings like Ruggles and Harmony.[2][3] At that time, graduate student permanent housing included McBain and River (then known as Hudson) Halls, which were also in abject condition at the time.[4] Ironically all of those buildings have been converted into undergraduate only housing over the years. By 1976, acting Dean Robert Belknap, observed that "[w]e have four residence halls that are run down, but basically decent structures to live in, Furnald, Hartley, Livingston, and McBain. Carman is badly designed, but fun. John Jay is a gloomy array of single rooms, and many of our students live at home or in apartments that leave much to be desired."[5] In 1978, the story wasn't much better, with the Spec running a two-part series on the poor living conditions in River, McBain and other buildings.[6] The story remained the same in 1983, with caved ceilings, non-functioning appliances, broken lights, etc., blighting dormitories, a combination of decay and shoddy construction taking the blame.[7][8]

The completion of Schapiro Hall in 1988 marked a turning point for Columbia because it allowed it to guarantee housing to all undergraduates for the first time in its history. Finally, in 2000, Columbia opened its sixth and latest purpose-built high-rise dormitory, Broadway Residence Hall. The University had mooted a new dormitory to be built in the place of the demolished 115th Street Brownstones in 2007 in order to support a 15% increase in class size of Columbia College, but never proceeded with the plan.

In order to supplement the construction of high-rise dormitories on and around campus, the University has also converted a number of apartment buildings for graduate students into dormitories for undergraduates over the years, e.g. Ruggles Hall, Hogan Hall, River Hall, McBain Hall, Watt Hall etc.

House system experiments

Because of the utilitarian nature of Columbia's dormitory designs dating back to John Jay Hall, as well as the limited space available on campus, Columbia has never been an ideal candidate for the types of House or Residential College systems established at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. As a matter of fact, when philanthropist Edward Harkness, who had funded the completion of the house and residential college systems at Harvard and Yale, offered his checkbook to Columbia, his largesse was directed towards the construction of Butler Library, as the school desperately needed more space than it had in Low Library.

Nevertheless, the idea of a House system, or borrowing elements from it, have been kicked around since the 1960s[9], and the 1990s[10].

In 2000 the University announced the creation of the Living and Learning Center (LLC) as an experimental set-up in Hartley and Wallach.[11]

External links


  1. http://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19730501-02.2.10
  2. http://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19690213-01.2.4
  3. http://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19750926-01.2.9
  4. http://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19741115-01.2.6
  5. http://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19761014-01.2.15 This meandering page-long set of 'reflections on the College' is a bizarre must-read.
  6. [1]; [2]
  7. decay outpacing maintenance, Columbia Spectator, 17 October 1983
  8. [3]; [ctatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/columbia?a=d&d=cs19831024-01.2.4]; [4]; [5]; [6]
  9. [7]; [8]; [9]
  10. [10]; [11]; [12]; [13]; [14]; [15]; [16]; [17]; [18]; [19]; [20]; [21]; [22]; [23]; [24]; [25]; [26]; [27]; [28]; [29]; [30]; [31]; [32]
  11. [33]
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