History of the Morningside Heights campus

From WikiCU
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the historical development of the Morningside Heights campus. For general information, see Morningside Heights campus.

Morningside Heights was the name given to the area when prominent civic and religious institutions moved here in the 1890s. Morningside Heights, so named because of prominent sunrise on the cliff of Morningside Park, was initially farmland that did not see serious development until the opening of the IRT 1/9 subway station at 116th Street in 1904. The first Columbia institution to open up new quarters was Teachers College in 1894. Barnard College and Columbia University (just renamed the previous year from Columbia College) officially moved in 1897.

Essential Character

By the late 1880s, it was clear that the the campus at 49th Street and Madison Avenue could not accommodate any more development. Columbia College at that time was crammed into literally one city block - one block downtown from 50th to 49th Street and one block crosstown from Fourth to Madison Avenues. President Barnard's aggressive initiatives to transform Columbia College into a world-class university had forced new construction which could not have even been imagined during the move to the "temporary" site. A Gothic-style six-story library had been built, that also accommodated Theodore Dwight's Law School. The School of Mines, formerly assigned an abandoned broom factory, was also the recipient of a new academic facility. Finally, Hamilton Hall, a dormitory complete with statue of Alexander Hamilton (that stands in front of our present Hamilton Hall), was erected at the west end of the campus.

The campus was not yet cramped, as there were still spacious courtyards and walkways through the campus, but for a school that enrolled ten times the number of students it had two decades before, and had limitless plans to keep on growing, it was readily apparent that the lone city block in what was then far uptown would seriously inhibit further growth.

The Trustees of Columbia College at this point convened, and looked to the same question that had plagued them in 1754, 1776, and then again in 1857: How to operate a college with undetermined space requirements in the middle of a rapidly growing city. Again, they looked at the same options presented in the past: disperse the College's departments and schools throughout the city, move uptown and keep the College together, or relocate to the countryside.

In 1891, the Trustees, led by William Schermerhorn, committed Columbia to "retain its essential character as a university in the heart of New York". Shortly afterwards, Columbia acquired the lands of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum (116th to 120th Streets, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue) for $2 million.

With the site decided on, the Trustees, led by Seth Low's $3 million gift to fund Low Library, and goaded by other Trustees such as William Schermerhorn and Cornelius Vanderbilt, dug into their collective pockets and generously gave to the cause, in addition to tacitly encouraging Columbia's first fundraising campaign. The results were odd, as not all the big givers were Columbia Trustees or alumni, but names like Avery, Dodge, Havemeyer, Lewisohn, and Fayerweather were introduced into the popular Columbia lexicon for the first time.

The vision affirmed, the new campus selected, the buildings and grounds largely paid for, and the "essential character" retained, the next step, picking the architect, would define to the world what this new Columbia University would be.

The Master Plan

Guiding Principles

Charles Follen McKim, George Mead, Stanford White

The task given to the Trustees was formidable. Colleges and universities were the exclusive domain of the countryside, yet Columbia stubbornly remained in the city. There was some precedent from the European universities and the University of Chicago, but the Trustees were flagrantly opposed to anything that might lead to a University of the City of New York (NYU)-style "breaking-up" of the Columbia academic community.

Although the new campus was a tenfold increase in size over the old, the planning committee realized that space must still be carefully used and economized, if the University was going to reach its potential in the coming decades. Thus, at the same time that the Trustees were creating new inroads in higher education by leaving Columbia in the city, they also sought to redefine how a city university ought to function in terms of building placement, building design space usage, and the like.

Three architects where invited to take part in the initial campus planning. Two were Richard Morris Hunt, a prominent New York architect, and Charles Coolidge Haight, who had served as Columbia College's architect on 49th Street.

The third was Charles Follen McKim, of the design firm McKim, Mead, and White. They were undoubtedly the favorites of American architecture at the time, leading the neoclassical revival. Some of their more notable creations included (or would include) the Boston Public Library, Pennsylvania Station New York (torn down in 1966 to make way for Madison Square Garden), and 30th Street Station Philadelphia.

The only precedent for an American university inside of an urban fabric was the University of Chicago. It was designed as a series of courtyards, with enclosed rectangles working into the street grid. The three architects basically stood by that ideal in their designs. However, Haight's vision was little more than a glorified recapitulation of the Madison campus, and Hunt's plan was an uninspiring grouping of enclosed squares. As the Trustees were looking for something bold and daring, they had little patience for the decidedly timid submissions from Hunt and Haight. Thus, in 1893, McKim, Mead, and White were designated the chief architects of the new campus.

The "City Beautiful"

The City Beautiful

Charles Follen McKim's plan, perpetuated as the Master Plan, and religiously adhered to for almost three-quarters of a century, astounded and impressed the Trustees in two ways. The first, is that though McKim also worked with courtyards and squares, he also introduced the axis. McKim emulated a near-forgotten Italian conception that arose from the Renaissance called the "City Beautiful" approach. Instead of clumping buildings together in courtyards, the City Beautiful approach called for intersecting, perpendicular axes of which the most distinctive and memorable elements of the institution would be placed on or at the intersection of the axes. The two most visible axes today are the Uris-Low-Butler north-south axis, and the Earl-Low-St. Paul's east-west axis. The "City Beautiful" approach also advocated placing the most important building squarely at or near the intersection of the axes, so as to promote a vision of importance and centralism. During the Renaissance, it was the church, with houses and markets lining the streets leading up to it. In the enlightened 20th century, it was the library. In the post-modern 21st century, it is office space for bureaucrats.

The second way the Master Plan delighted the Trustees was the sheer uniqueness of the architecture. Collegiate architecture, up to this point, had been, by definition, synonymous with Gothic, evoking the monasteries and cathedrals that were the first European universities. It was therefore both refreshing and bold for a Trustee to announce that "in attempting the Gothic we shall at once appear to be imitating the English universities, and shall thereby suggest a comparison which can scarcely fail to be unfavorable to us". New insight in hand, the Trustees quickly decided that the architecture of Greece and Rome "is the style which will appeal most to strongly to educated popular taste, and will be most likely to secure an imposing architectural effect", and who better to carry out that mission than the renowned American neoclassicists McKim, Mead, and White?

Thus the plans were drawn, and the image of Columbia University was at last fully defined. However, the campus as it stands today cannot be said to have been faithful to the aims of the Master Plan. Even thought McKim pioneered the City Beautiful uses of axes, he didn't want to eliminate the enclosed courtyard entirely. He wanted to strike a balance between what he termed the "atrium" of the campus, designed specifically to highlight its most prominent architecture, and the smaller, more intimate courtyard. Yet, on our campus today, only one such courtyard exists, the St. Paul's-Fayerweather-Schermerhorn-Avery. The other courtyards were simply left unbuilt, initially out of financial circumstance rather than changes in campus design. But, as the years progressed, the open spaces in areas like the Philosophy Lawn and the Vam Amringe Quad began to be seen as a blessing rather than a waste of space, which, in the City of New York is all but a guarantee that they will never be filled.

We owe much to McKim, Mead, and White, for they defined the Columbia University of today. They offered a bold vision of what a college in the world city of the west ought to look like, and in doing so, combined power and grace, strength and order, beauty and subtlety in a compelling vision that became the Master Plan. Yet, as much as they are lauded for the ingenious application of axes and atriums as well as the unique brand of architecture, the campus has developed virtually ignoring the other aspect of their vision, namely small, intimate courtyards. Regardless of that, Columbia University would grow and prosper according to the Master Plan, until the student riots of 1968 finally forced the Trustees to evaluate new options.

Related Images

Butler & His Legacy

South Field

Butler was present at the formulation of the Master Plan, but his commitment to it persisted at Columbia for years after he left. One of the first things he did was, after positing the opinion that "the area of the site ... will be entirely insufficient for the work of the University in the very near future", was push for the purchase of the South Field, running from 114th to 116th Streets between Broadway and Amsterdam. Once acquired, the South Field was designated by Butler, in his continuing push to make Columbia University more of a national university that recruited students from outside New York City, to be a residential district. All this stood in stark contrast to President Low's vision of a University "in and of the city", where commuting students would return to their lives in the city after a day of classes at Columbia. All this also figured very neatly into Charles McKim's Master Plan that envisioned courtyards in the fields, providing an intimate residential setting for students. The dormitories - Hartley Hall, Livingston (now Wallach Hall), and Furnald Hall - were built as money became available, but the vision of the residential courtyards was never realized.

University Hall

University Hall

One of McKim's vaguest elements would turn into a thorn that would plague Columbia University until the early 1960s. During the planning phase, McKim set aside space behind Low Library for a building that would combine gymnasium, dining hall, and academic theatre, that would provide a focal point for student life. As the Master Plan matured, McKim turned his attention to designing this new University Hall. It was slated to be a magnificent neoclassical structure, complementing Low Library's academic focus with that of student life. The building plan became grander and grander, with additional features added such as the university's power and steam plant as well as a 25-yard pool and gymnasium, the only parts still surviving today. Construction began in 1895 with the University funding the foundations of University Hall (namely the pool, gymnasium, and the power plant), and leaving the upper levels to be built with alumni funds. By the early twentieth century, this was akin to admitting defeat: Columbia College had been more or less permanently relegated, and Columbia never made an effort to cultivate the alumni base at all. Hence, the money never appeared.

University Hall Library

University Hall would be revisited again and again by Butler and his successors as they repeatedly evaluated and re-evaluated the building's purpose and funding in the next few decades. The most notable proposal happened in 1927, when it became clear that Low Memorial Library simply could not accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing university. Charles Williamson, Director of the Columbia University Libraries, opinioned to Butler that the conception of University Hall might be used to greater purpose as a research library. Given the priorities of the University at this time, it was a very reasonable suggestion. Williamson's proposal was sweeping in its scope, calling for the completion of University Hall and its physical merge with Low Library. The "bridge" that connected the two buildings would serve as a cavernous reading room, and the University Hall side would reach eight stories, with a stack core capable of holding six million books (Butler Library currently holds two million). In the end, the combination of the exorbitant price tag, the radical alterations needed to be made to University Hall, and the physical and technical challenges of storing books in the same facility as a power plant and a swimming pool sunk the grandiose scheme.

For the library, Butler and his administration looked towards South Field. When Low envisioned the new campus for Columbia, he stressed the necessity of a vista from which a student could look out to the city from whence he came, and would someday return to. As Morningside Heights is on a hill, the south end of the campus provided a perfect vantage point to view the city that was rapidly rising up. But by the 1930s, the row houses on 114th Street effectively blocked views of midtown and downtown. Building a research library on vacant land also provided for a much more palatable $3.5 million price tag to the chief donor, Edward Harkness. While University Hall - essentially a student center - languished unbuilt, Columbia's research library was finished in 1934, and, perhaps to silence any doubters of where the University's priorities lay, undergraduates were not even allowed in.

What happened to University Hall deserves its own saga. For a time, the University built a temporary structure at campus level to house offices and a makeshift kitchen before John Jay Dining Hall opened. During the skyscraper-building craze of the 1930s, there was even some talk of finishing University Hall as a thirty-story Art Deco skyscraper, in the style of the towers rising downtown. For the most part, the power plant, gym, and pool functioned as they continued to function today, while the University Hall foundations sat, unbuilt, for 67 years. It was the subject of annual pleas and endless embarrassment. When Percy Uris finally provided funds to finish University Hall in 1962, now renamed Uris Hall, students from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, armed with signs blaring "WE PROTEST BAD DESIGN", "BAN THE BUILDING", and "NO MORE UGLIES", picketed its dedication. It was a sad ending to an even sadder story.

The Science Buildings

The 120th Street Laboratories

By the 1920s, it was clear that the University's focus on science could not be realized within the confines of Schermerhorn and Havemeyer Halls. The beginnings of Columbia's dominant strengths in physics and chemistry were hitting the physical constraints of limited lab space. For a while, Butler and his administration contented themselves by believing that extensions to Schermerhorn and Havemeyer Halls could accomodate the lab, office, and classroom space needed for the expanding science departments, and in turn constructed Chandler Laboratories (named after the first School of Mines Dean Charles Frederick Chandler) and the Schermerhorn Extension. But a combination of two factors pushed for more development. The first was that the extensions, spacious as they seemed, would inevitably be filled to capacity within a few short years.

The second was a combination of aesthetic ambition and forward-looking insight. The north end of the campus, primarily 119th to 120th Street from Broadway to Amsterdam was called, at the time, simply "The Grove". It was largely vacant and the Trustees toyed with several ideas of developing it. Before and after the purchase of South Field, dormitories were broached as a possible use of the Grove. At one point, Olmstead Brothers (the same firm that had designed Central Park) recommended a series of formal plantings and landscaping, to make the Grove a arboretum of sorts, unoccupied by ungainly academic buildings. Common sense won out eventually, and the idea of leaving the Grove vacant was quietly scrapped.

However, the question on what to do with the Grove still remained. The space was there and available for development, and the McKim Master Plan had not addressed any buildings north of University Hall. Butler, in 1926, advanced an ambitious plan, both to provide both generous space to accommodate future growth in the science departments, and, for the first time, to establish an imposing skyline for the Columbia campus. McKim, Mead, and White accommodating his wishes and responded with a plan calling for five buildings fronting 120th Street: two slender, twenty-story skyscrapers at the corners, two twelve-story structures in between, and a seventeens-story tower in the very center. The five buildings would have been dedicated exclusively to physics, chemistry, and the emerging engineering sciences.

The ambitious plans were unfortunately not realized, for a combination of reasons. The first was that there wasn't a need - yet - of the ambitious scale of the proposed buildings. Second was the difficulty of reconciling the neoclassical construction and detail of the structures with the very real structural and physical demands of a laboratory building. Simply put, the amount of reinforcement and protection required by the laboratories made McKim's trademark cornicing and detail work exorbitantly expensive to implement. Finally, the cost of the plan, which seemed to grow endlessly, combined with the relative lack of need, committed all but one building to remain permanently on the drawing board. The one structure that did get built, Pupin Physics Laboratories, very adequately served the needs of the rapidly rising Department of Physics for the next few decades.

As for the rest of the skyline, the Seeley W. Mudd Building, home of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, was completed at the corner of 120th and Amsterdam in 1961, reviled then as now as a glorified cinder block. The space in the center stood vacant for years while the Trustees toyed with the idea of erecting a diminutive art gallery there, before accommodating Pegram Laboratories, a modest structure adjoining Pupin Hall that housed a particle accelerator. That was demolished in 1955 and again stood vacant until 1992 when the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research was built. In this case, there was at last an attempt (although to what degree of success is still a matter of contention) to use McKim's vision as a guideline, visible in its limestone facade, Harvard brick lining, contextual roofing material, and generally faithful shape, in stark contrast to the banal and uninspiring Mudd Building and Uris Hall that ignored, if not insulted, McKim's Master Plan.

The Riverside Park Stadium

Riverside Park Stadium

Perhaps it is a fortunate thing for Columbia University's leadership that so little is known about the Riverside Park Stadium because the sheer scale of what might have been might provoke riots. Here are the facts, such as they are. McKim, Mead, and White never considered a stadium in their Master Plan, but a widely circulated drawing of a stadium by Palmer and Hornbostel to be placed at the foot of 116th Street, fronting the Hudson River has, time and time again, fired the popular imagination. The structure was a majestic neoclassical creation, reminiscent of the Circus Maximus in Rome, with marble statues and symbols lining the sides. No information on how many people it seated or what sports it could have hosted is given, but the architectural drawing indicates a track, and not one, but two playing fields. Additionally, a boathouse would have been constructed in the vicinity, and due to the fact that it literally fronted the Hudson River, docks were placed at both ends for aquatic sports.

What happened to this gem of gems is history. Columbia University secured permission from the City of New York to build on that patch of land in 1906. Football had been banned, ostensibly for "rowdiness", the previous year. The College, which the stadium would have almost exclusively served, made up less than 20% of University enrollments, and did not even have its own building yet (Hamilton Hall would not be built until 1907). For the stadium to have been built with University funds would have been akin to the University renouncing the notion, set in motion by Barnard, and followed up by Low and Butler, that the University's priorities lay with the graduate and professional faculties. For the stadium to have been built with alumni funds would have been a flight of pure fancy, as University Hall's checkered history of sitting unbuilt for 67 years waiting for alumni funds can more than attest to, combined with the College alumni's general (and justified) mistrust that the University would misappropriate their donations for other purposes.

With football returning in 1915, the University would again and again, in the next decade, look for a venue to place its sports facilities. For the time being, they placed a temporary facility in the middle of South Field, with a track and grandstands running around the edge. Columbia's much lauded legends like Lou Gehrig played in those temporary facilities. By 1923, Baker Field Stadium was up and running, but it was not until the mid-1960s that the last aspects of the South Field athletic facilities were finally torn down. However, the idea of a stadium that wasn't five miles away continued to fire the popular and professional imagination. In 1931, Max Abramovitz, who would later go on to design the International Affairs Building, the Law School, and the United Nations, submitted what was possibly the last gasp for a Riverside Park Stadium. It was located near the site of Palmer and Hornbostel's stadium, but scaled back in size (one field only), scope (as it did not front the river, crew was not accommodated), and aesthetics (much less detailed than Palmer and Hornbostel's creation). Again, it based the same problems as did Palmer and Hornbostel, with the additional challenge that a fully functional stadium for Columbia University's athletics, albeit five miles away, already existed.

The Riverside Park Stadium is, like University Hall, another great missed opportunity that we only recognize with the 20/20 vision that comes with regretful hindsight. But, in those days, the University's priorities clearly lay elsewhere. Instead of the twenty-minute trip to Baker Field and the monolithic eyesore that is Uris Hall, the grandiose yet unrealized plans for improving student life, such as the stadii and buildings that never (or partially) got off the drawing board, are perhaps the most painful reminder of what might have been and the clearest indicator of how different from our present Alma Mater was the Columbia University of yesteryear.

Related Images

The Kirk Empire

A New World

The departure of Nicholas Murray Butler left the University headless and flailing. The Trustees, all of whom became Trustees under Butler's reign, were suddenly thrust into a power vacuum that they never experienced before - the domineering, micromanaging Butler had led the University in setting policy, pursuing agendas, hiring faculty, and the like for over forty years. Their next choice of President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, is pointed by some to be an indication that the Trustees needed a breather to learn and perform their functions again. Indeed, Dwight Eisenhower did not disappoint as even the most generous observers labeled his tenure a "part-time" Presidency.

When the ascension of Grayson Kirk to the Presidency, Columbia was once again under visionary, academic, and activist leadership. Kirk joined Columbia during the closing years of the Butler imperium and served as Provost under Eisenhower. Although Kirk was not present during Columbia's Golden Age in the early twentieth century, he certainly felt the full effects that World War II had upon academia. No longer the cloistered Ivory Tower of bespectacled academics, universities were now called upon to contribute to the scientific, economic, and technological needs of the nation. Hence, bigger was better. The biggest universities, the biggest labs, the biggest faculties, the biggest research grants. Public universities experienced their first take-off, as did institutional behemoths-to-be like Stanford.

Post-War Buildup

Back on Morningside Heights, Grayson Kirk, recognizing the inadequacies of thirty-six acres on Morningside Heights as well as the new face of academia that was defined by the Cold War, began to formulate a new plan to revitalize and expand Columbia's physical plant. The last building, Butler Library, completed in 1934, served its function, but the burgeoning spate of new demands and new roles taken up by universities after World War II necessitated an even greater expansion, intellectually and physically.

The first vestiges of a wide-scale government-academic partnership grew out of the Second World War, where Columbia was the fourth-largest recipient of Federal funds. But the looming threat of a Soviet Union cemented this partnership, one that survives and thrives to this very day. During the war, aesthetics fell by the wayside as functionality determined the order of the day. After the war, with the threat of an even greater war, that sentiment remained.

The International Affairs Building and the Law School (now Jerome Greene Hall) were the first buildings to rise on the area known as East Campus, which the Trustees and the President ignored for the past twenty years. The IAB took in Columbia's expanding School of International Affairs, and the Law School finally allowed the Law Faculty to evacuate the crowded and restrictive Kent Hall for more spacious quarters.

In the mid-1950s, with the acceleration of the Cold War and the beginning of the space race, the Engineering School, restricted for years in Mathematics Hall, was suddenly subjected to new attention both from Low Library and from Washington. To compete with the Soviet Union in technological revolution that was to come, it needed far more space than McKim could have possibly imagined. For some time, it considered relocating to Riverside Drive and starting a separate complex of buildings. By 1958, the proponents of physical compactness won out, and Voorhees, Walker, Smith, & Smith submitted drawings for the Seeley W. Mudd Engineering Building. It was, in the spirit of the 1950s, and like any other engineering built at any other university campus, cold, utilitarian, but extremely functional, and was designed with only two purposes in mind: to create as much lab space to carry out the research work against the Soviet threat as possible, and to create as much lecture space to train the engineers who would carry out the research work against the Soviet threat as possible.

Meanwhile, on the south end of campus, the first undergraduate structure to be erected since John Jay Hall was coming to fruition. It wasn't built, however, out of a desire to house students. Columbia had a somewhat justified reputation as a commuter college, and undergraduates, for the most part, contented themselves with living in the area, off campus (it was not until the late 1980s that Columbia could offer four years' worth of housing to all undergraduates). It was built because Columbia had the good fortune to recieve a donation from the Booth family for a student center at the same time as it was approved to recieve a loan from the Federal Housing and Home Agency for dormitory housing. Thus, Columbia built the Carman Hall/Ferris Booth Hall complex, but as a stipulation of the loan to construct Ferris Booth, the FHHA strictly forbade a link between the dorm and the student center, a condition adhered to even today in Alfred Lerner Hall.

The results of Kirk's building frenzy, which finished with the picketed Uris Hall in 1961, are generally disdained. In all of the structures, there was no attempt made to imitate or even to respect McKim's themes, or to consider what impact their scale, shapes, and angles would have on the rest of the campus. Commentary was likewise acerbic: the Law School was promptly labeled a "toaster", Carman Hall's corridor-style living arrangements were referred to as a "Victorian reformatory", Mudd was "a brick". As for Uris Hall, donor (and Trustee) Percy Uris called it a "fine building, completely suitable". Everyone else saw it as the "final assassination of McKim's ambitions".

Perhaps nothing is more telling as to general student, faculty, and public attitudes to this period than an event that occurred in 1961. Radio station WKCR invited Architecture Professor Percival Goodman to comment on the recent surge of building. What he said to this day remains a mystery, because the Columbia administration promptly confiscated those tapes.

Remaking Morningside Heights

While Kirk led the Trustees to building after building, he knew that the rapidly filling campus would not be able to keep pace with his institutional ambitions. As early as 1960, he began looking off campus in one of the most wide-ranging expansions ever considered in Columbia's history to that point. Perhaps he was also goaded on by a oft-told failed opportunity in the annals of Columbia history, where financier J. Pierpont Morgan advised Butler that there was no need to buy up all the land around Columbia in the early 1900s because the land would, presumably, always be there for the taking. While he built on-campus, he never took his eye off the big picture of when it was no longer desirable to crowd the thirty-six acre patch any further.

By 1961, the University subscribed to a plan set forth by the city for urban renewal in the Morningside Heights area. Its objectives were vague, but it could already be seen that the University's actions would be like nothing it had ever attempted before. The tittering grew louder as Columbia, through the early to mid-1960s, purchased every inch of real estate it could in the area. When the University, for the first time, launched a largest-in-academic-history capital campaign with the goal of $200 million, it was no longer deniable that Kirk's brainchild would be nothing short of revolutionary.

Under pressure from an increasingly nervous community and an increasingly curious student body, the Trustees released a preliminary map of the goals of the $200 million campaign. In it, the University would have annexed every city block (and closed off to traffic) south to 111th Street. It was the ultimate culmination of McKim's ambitions and Butler's legacy.

The 1966 Plan

Information on what this expansion would have entailed is sketchy at best, as no definite architectural plans or renderings were drawn up for any of the buildings - the map was an early conception of a project lasting a decade or more. The only publication put forth by the administration was a lengthy pamphlet describing the needs and goals of such an expansion, written for fundraising purposes, with little in the way of specifics. The pamphlet itself focused on two aspects of expansion that would, presumably, garner the most attention. The first is undergraduate life; the second is science.

Expanding Columbia College

Even though it ostensibly focuses much attention on undergraduate needs, that too must be qualified. The justification for expanding Columbia College, as laid out in the pamphlet, was simply to "enlarge the reservoir of potential Ph.D.'s and professional men". The Butler-era conception of the College as a feeder gymnasium into the professional schools was still largely at work.

The Columbia College Library

At this point in time, Butler Library was still a closed-stack library, and still geared almost exclusively to the graduate and professional schools. The one part Columbia College students were allowed to use is today's Room 209, the long reading room with the stained-glass portrait of Peter Stuyvesant. All other parts were simply off-limits.

Recognizing that the Columbia College Library was operating over capacity, the plan envisioned an extension of Butler Library across 114th Street that would accommodate undergraduates, undergraduates doing advanced research work, as well as, of course, first-year graduate students. The map suggests a 75% increase in the size of Butler Library, but actual architectural plans were never drawn up.

The Columbia College Library, as envisioned, would have accommodated 300,000 volumes in open stacks, and hosted 2,000 individual study spaces. The facility would have been air conditioned and made provisions for "individualized electronic equipment".

The Undergraduate Residential College

Recognizing the reality of having not nearly enough housing to accommodate all undergraduates (and perhaps also goaded by Low Library to increase enrollments to keep pace with the rest of the Ivy League), the plans also showed a residential college arrangement of buildings stretching from 114th to 111th Street. Details on this are even scantier than on the Library, but the new structures would have housed at least 2,000 students - the entire incoming freshmen and sophomore class of the projected expansion to 4,000 students from 2,700. They would have also included "dining halls, guest quarters, library studies, exercise rooms, and rooms for music and art".

Developing the Grove

It's easy to assume that the buildings on the north end of campus have always been there. But the truth is, the majority of those structures did not exist until 1980. When Kirk looked north from Low Library, he only saw Pupin Hall and the monolithic Mudd Building. The possibilities and needs for expansion were tantalizing.

Biological Sciences

Columbia's strengths in the life sciences faltered somewhat during the afternoon on the Hudson, but the field itself, neglected in favor of war-time research, was excellently positioned to take part in the wide-scale flowering of academia as the world returned to normal. The Biology and Chemistry departments, cramped into Havemeyer and Schermerhorn Halls (barely abetted by extensions), found themselves competing for space with newly-prominent interdisciplinary studies. Proper laboratory facilities for the new era of life science research were simply not to be had in the venerable but aging McKim creations.

The plans made room for a new Biological Sciences building, which would house Biology, Psychology, and the emerging interdisciplinary studies. It would have stood in where is now the Schapiro CEPSR (which is dedicated to physical, rather than life sciences). By the time it was finally built as the Sherman Fairchild Center for Life Sciences in 1977, it was ingeniously moved in front of Mudd to provide the bland facade with a modicum of respectability.

Science Auditorium

A very interesting proposal put forth was the Science Auditorium. The justification for such an auditorium was that as the University increased enrollments, it would become prohibitively expensive to duplicate scientific demonstrations in science lectures. The auditorium would have been one facility, designed to accommodate physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering lectures. It would have also provided laboratory space. The hall would have seated at least 400 students and would have been located in what is now the Levien Gym.

Science Library

A unified science library, then, as now, was and is long overdue. Because the bulk of Columbia's holdings in history and the humanities are housed in Butler, the science departments had to make do with departmental libraries. Over time, periodical literature overlapped, and finding what one needed before the age of computers often necessitated traveling to half a dozen or more libraries. Moreover, a growing debate arose over where to store journals that weren't in the traditional fields of science, such as biochemistry.

The new science library would have combined the University's holdings in science journals under one roof - serving as, in effect, as the science counterpart to Butler. It would have eliminated needless duplication, and freed up much-needed space to the respective departments, as well as provided a single destination for science researchers. It also would have been the first wide-scale application of "the new computer technology" to be put to use for the "rapid retrieval of information" in a Columbia library system.

The location for the new library would have been where the Pupin tennis courts now stand. However, the need for a unified science (and now engineering) hasn't decreased; on the contrary, it has been exacerbated by the rapidly changing nature of science. Fortunately, the new unified science library will still be built. Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for 2008.

The Morningside Park Gymnasium

The Morningside Park Gymnasium

Perhaps no building has generated as much fame and infamy as Columbia's ill-fated Morningside Park Gymnasium. Issue was first raised by Trustee Harold G. McGuire, a genuine College Believer, over the inadequacies of the University Hall Gym, which at that time consisted of the Blue Gym and the Uris Pool. On the south end of the campus, the Trustees hesitated at encroaching on any of the treasured open space. On the north end of campus, what little space remained was promised to the science and engineering departments.

Morningside Park was not so much the logical choice as it was the only choice. The planning process went without a hitch at first, but the traditionally undergraduate-unfriendly and fiscally cautious Trustees refused to commit to building a gymnasium until all the funds had been raised by alumni - a tactic used by Butler to endlessly defer University Hall. Community groups, welcoming the prospect of a gym in Morningside Park at first, gradually cooled their enthusiasms and upped their demands as seven long years dragged by with no progress in sight.

The Gym itself was built off the cliff formed by Morningside Drive and Morningside Park at 113th Street, designed by Eggers & Higgins, was a $9 million structure that was, in reality, two gyms. On top would be the gym for Columbia College (and only Columbia College) undergraduates. On the bottom was a gym for the community. Columbia was no stranger in Morningside Park - it had previously coordinated summer baseball games. But the gym was not without its flaws. Faculty and College administration united in deciding that College funds would be better put to use elsewhere. Many of the athletic coaches even labeled the gym's layout as unsuitable.

As the delays wore on and on, mainly because of administrative fiscal caution and student apathy, the permit to build in the Park, hailed as a pioneering public-private partnership when it was granted, became an embarassment to the city, as city officials quietly urged Columbia to build the gym, and opposition politicians quickly found a sticking point from which to oppose the establishment. And as the permit came up for review each time, the community groups tacked on more and more stringent demands, finally exacting an Olympic-sized pool and a vastly expanded basketball arena out of the increasingly frustrated Trustees.

When the Trustees finally authorized the construction of the gymnasium, largely under tremendous pressure from all directions, it was already February of 1968. Two months later, student protests shut down the campus.

Related Images

Aftershocks of '68

Unwelcome Positions

To characterize the aftershocks of 1968 as only recently exorcised is accurate in terms of architectural, and for a large part, institutional standing. The effects of 1968 deeply wounded the University as star faculty took flight, alumni tightened their purse strings, and the idea of conducting research on a campus taken over by radicals like Mark Rudd seemed less than palatable. Columbia would not restore its academic standing, establish its financial strength, or recover its institutional profile for over two decades. It's campus and architectural endeavors, however, have only been recovered this past year.

I. M. Pei

Why Trustees hired Pei is a something of a mystery - the architect was had not yet reached the level of prominence he holds today, and had never worked with neoclassical design before. There are two explanations for this: one is the compelling explanation, and the other is the cynical explanation which I have learned through informal interviews.

The compelling explanation is that Pei was hired out of a genuine and pressing need to re-evaluate the McKim, Mead, and White Master Plan. Columbia University, to McKim, was simply a study in building placement and construction. By the late 1960s, it had become a question of land usage, land zoning, affordable housing, community boards, and many other local and city-level concerns that simply didn't exist when Morningside Heights was rural farmland.

The cynical explanation is that the Trustees hired I. M. Pei because they knew of his eclectic tastes and surmised that his designs would not be greeted with enthusiasm. They needed someone to shield them from the still-simmering community and alumni backlash. Finally, they needed to illustrate why expanding off campus, while momentarily undesirable, was the only choice left. The cynics point to facts like the budget the Trustees saddled Pei with, the autonomy they granted him in dealing with the community, their failure to support him when community group and student alike began expressing their contempt for his plan, his rather indignant resignation, and his refusal, to this day, to talk about or to Columbia University.

From the outset, Pei was forced into a difficult position. As an architect, he was tasked by the University to talk to community groups and solicit input over what would be appropriate architectural planning. Pei was quite unprepared for the many additional layers of meaning that had in Morningside Heights. The problems were exacerbated by Pei's reluctance to take a stand on issues outside of architecture, such as zoning, gentrification, and the Morningside Gym.

In any case, it is universally agreed that his plans, carried through to fruition, would have fundamentally altered the face of the campus.

The Pei Master Plan

The I. M. Pei Master Plan, eschewing McKim's conceptions of atria and openness, opted for what he called "intensive use of the land", meaning precisely that. The campus would be built on and developed to its maximum appropriate usage. It also made no attempt whatsoever to contextualize within the McKim plan, preferring a coherent series of well-designed (e.g. as opposed to Uris) contrasts.

The South Campus

South Field tower from John Jay

Pei's plans for South Field are the most memorable parts of his plan. The picture of the slender twin towers rising out of where McKim's planned inner rank of dormitories would have stood are circulated far and wide. The buildings, at twenty-three stories each, would have housed faculty and administrative offices, not student quarters, and would have faced each other across from South Field. Pei also suggested the unpopular notion of curtailing the width of the South Field, implying, of all things, that it was too big!

The usages of the twin towers mirrored Pei's sense of purpose and utility. Faculty and administrative offices had been spread throughout the McKim pavilions depriving them of their proper usage, namely to serve as classroom space. Pei wanted to concentrate faculty and administration into the two towers. Two notions, that faculty preferred having offices close to where they taught, and that students, especially those of the inebriated variety, might not take kindly to hundreds of administrators and professors just steps from their dormitories were not considered.

South Field underground concourse

The second aspect of Pei's plans for South Field was to literally hollow it out. Part of the April Fool's cover for the 1967 Spectator was a headline blaring that the University intended to hollow out South Field for use as a gymnasium. It became reality in Pei's plan. It wasn't the first, however. Eggers & Higgins, after the Morningside Park fiasco, hurriedly prepared plans for a multi-level gymnasium underground near South Field. However, the aftereffects of the 1968 protests had rendered Kirk, Eggers & Higgins, and for a time, the very concept of a Columbia gymnasium (there is a reason our present gymnasium is called a "Physical Fitness Center"), politically and practically impossible.

Pei did not want to devote the South Field exclusively to a gym. It would be a five-level underground facility that would house a Columbia College Library, a gymnasium complete with pool, running track, and multiple basketball courts, a bookstore, lounges, meeting rooms, a post office, and a student center. The idea of connecting the underground facility with the 116th Street subway station was even floated.

The North Campus

On the north end of the campus, in what remained of the Grove, Pei's plans remained no less startling. Pei, committed to his ideas about density, suggested a radical approach to constructing the still-unbuilt, yet much-needed laboratories. Engineering at Columbia, having been hit hard by the take-offs of institutions like MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Berkeley, sooner found even the spacious Mudd to be limiting. Pei proposed that the Engineering School to be expanded to fill in the space between Mudd and Schermerhorn along Amsterdam, in effect, turning Mudd into an L-shape building and forming an airshaft by Mudd, Schermerhorn, and Fairchild.

Immediately north of Uris Hall, however, was Pei's most radical creation of all. A new chemistry facility, which would house the department (and leave Havemeyer Hall to less lab-based academic work) would rise, overhanging the circular Uris Library. The new building would be shaped like a long rectangular box, and rest on a shorter box of lesser proportions. In it's length, it would almost reach entirely cross-campus. Pei also revisited the idea of a science library on the site of the present site of the Pupin tennis courts but his design there is much more conventional.


The breakdown of the University's working relationship with Pei can be attributed to a variety of factors, most of all communication. Pei insisted on complete autonomy, but that autonomy led him to experience, first hand, the wrath and frustration of neighborhood groups. The University's reluctance to back him made these problems so bad that Pei soon referred to them as "embarrassing". Moreover, and this is where the cynics draw their biggest arguments, Pei's plans were pretty pictures but shockingly unrealistic.

The concentrated presence of faculty and administrators in the twin towers on South Field would have negatively affected student dynamics. The scale of the towers and the size of the new chemistry facility would have casted many unwanted shadows on campus and would have only succeeded in fencing off the student population more. Furthermore, the extravagant cost of the South Field scheme, estimated at $35 million, was greater than Columbia's total debt at a time when the University was running regular deficits. It simply could not have been paid for.

Finally, what made Pei's plans ultimately unacceptable were not just that they were unrealistic, but that they were not Columbia. A city like New York is not conducive to physically integrous entities like Columbia University. Witness the spate of colleges forced to decentralize and spread out: NYU, Fordham, Pace, and the like. Yet Columbia's governing authorities, in 1755, in 1784, in 1787, in 1857, in 1894, again, again, and again rejected the idea that Columbia would operate as anything but an academic community, intellectually and physically.

One of Pei's loudest and most persistent calls was for Columbia to decentralize move units of the University to other parts of the city, "in order to permit growth of those with must remain on the Heights". As late as 1970, the members of the University Senate were considering even moving the College outside of the city. On June 30, 1970, Pei, completely fed up with waffling on behalf of the administration, increasingly hostile receptions at community functions, the general lack of enthusiasm for his creations, as well as the just-uncovered news of the state of University finances which almost certainly relegated his creations to the drafting board, resigned, stating, "Columbia must now weigh priorities".

Pei's visions could not have become reality. Pei was unsuited to deal with the unique demands of New York City real estate. Pei's architecture was a drastic, albeit consistent, contrast to McKim's neoclassical wonders. Pei's creations soon became synonymous with financial suicide. Finally, Pei's vision of Columbia was not the Columbia of the ages. An interesting partnership and many interesting ideas were floated, but it was one doomed from the start. Perhaps it is fitting that the only one of Pei's ideas to become reality was also the least visible one: the underground extension of the Avery Architectural Library and the underground facility holding the Avery Fine Arts Library.

Return to Sanity

Following Pei's resignation, and the ascension of McGill to the Presidency, Columbia could finally begin to look forward. The lessons of 1968 had been ingrained on a University that, previously, could expand at will. But I. M. Pei's plans also impressed upon the apocryphal naysayers of the impracticality of remaining permanently fenced in. Something had to be done, but Columbia's institutional house had to first be put in order.

McGill put the finances back on track, and the following President, Michael Sovern, had firsthand experience of 1968, having served as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty. Sovern established the financial strength by finally selling off Rockefeller Center. Sovern also began the unpalatable task of filling in what few spaces were left of the campus. To his credit, the buildings erected were deemed to be, if not completely acceptable, then at least far better than what went up during Kirk's building frenzy. Some, like both the Schapiro dormitory and the Schapiro CEPSR and the Computer Science Building, even garnered praise. Others, like the Uris Extension, sought to soften the blow of Kirk's rather banal legacy.

By 1994, it was universally agreed that Columbia had made huge strides and had largely exorcised the ghosts of 1968. Yet the with the recovery of the University's academic, financial, and institutional standing, the need to expand became pressing once more. The task would fall to a new President with a bold new vision for what Columbia University could be.

Related Images


See Manhattanville campus.

Significant contributors

External links