The Columbia Observer, Part One

Written by

Welcome to the first installment in our five-part series on Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, that mystifying, Columbia-owned haven of higher learning in Palisades, New York, that no one really knows anything about – until now!  Bwog correspondent Addison Anderson takes us through the history, the mystery, and the all-around good time that is waiting for you just a short bus ride upstate. Featuring: forests, the Rockefellers, bad architecture, beer, CU250, Nestle Chocolate, Robert Moses, College Walk, “I Like Ike”, and the origin story of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory!

geoAcross the street from Radio Perfecto on Amsterdam Avenue, a sign on Columbia’s northeastern wall marks the starting point of a trip few undergraduates ever take to a place they know little about.  Before seeing it, I had imagined that the Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory, with its presumed tall observation tower and/or laser cannon, would make a good headquarters for a super-villain in a Varsity Show.  Friends had similar impressions: “I always thought it was like, a giant dome.” “It’s probably really high tech, lots of steel and glass.”

As it turns out, this is not the case.  Hoping to find out for real what this mythical place was all about, I join dozens of researchers, grad students and professors one rainy Friday morning on the 8 AM chartered tourbus to Lamont. While the Lamonters, as they call themselves, sip their coffee and devour their Times, the bus rumbles over the George Washington Bridge and up to the Palisades along a two-lane highway, finally arriving at Lamont’s 150-acre campus on a bluff above the Hudson River. 








Continue reading after the jump… 

Skirting around a gray brick lump of a building called Geoscience, I head down into a  village of humble cottages, long sheds, and large two-story brick labs built half a century ago.  I am confronted by odd machines strewn about, like the big yellow thing pictured here (when you turn away, it inches closer.)
The architecture is heart-warmingly homey, the colors of a county library’s rug.  In fact, the Oceanography building’s original corn-chowder tan facade was such an eyesore to the Rockefellers, whose estate is across the river, that they paid to paint one side green and plant trees in front of it.  Since then, however, it’s likely that the only subsequent beautification efforts took place two years ago, when someone put up a few dozen Columbia250 banners.

beer“We put the money into people and expeditions, not buildings,” explains Doug Brusa, Lamont’s Associate Director of Development.  His office is full of promotional materials, most from the recent Open House, and a few cases of beer for post-colloquium parties.  (The Lamont Development Office works hard and plays lighter.)  He takes me on a tour of the grounds.  His umbrella reads: “For when your climate changes abruptly,” and he muses as we walk around campus, “A visitor told me, ‘You’ve got the best one-day science fair in the country.’ And yet we’re still calling it Open House, like we’re having a yard sale.”

houseBrusa suspects the misnomer comes from Lamont’s beginnings, as an actual house.  Today’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is the former estate of Thomas W. Lamont, the man who brought Nestle Chocolate to American consumers and went on to become J.P. Morgan’s right hand man.  In 1929, wanting a weekend getaway from his huge mansion on the Upper East Side, the banker built a huge mansion on the Hudson, complete with housing for the help, an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, a six-car garage, a garden designed by the Olmsted brothers, a root cellar, and a big statue of Abraham Lincoln reading a book while riding a horse.








Above: Pretty garden! Right: Reading while riding a horse seems difficult, and perhaps unnecessary.

After Lamont died in 1948, his wife Florence Corliss Lamont, graduate of the master’s program in philosophy at Columbia (and the woman for whom that Olmsted garden was
ikebuilt as a gift), offered the estate to the University, and then-University President Dwight Eisenhower accepted (A photo of the historic handover now hangs in an important-looking lobby on the campus.)  According to CU science writer Laurence Lipsett, a deal was struck with regional construction coordinator Robert Moses: if Columbia gave over the small New Jersey portion of the estate to Moses’ Palisades Interstate Park plan, Moses would allow Columbia to close off College Walk to motorists.  When the deal was done, Ike used Mrs. Lamont’s gift to persuade legendary geophysicist Maurice “Doc” Ewing not to pack his bags for MIT, which had offered him an estate of its own. 

And hence, the Lamont Geological Observatory was born.  But the story’s not over yet! Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment of our series.  Next time: Doc Ewing, explosions in New Jersey, a trap door in Schermerhorn, space constraints, seafaring, more explosions, general disarray, a very famous kitchen, and bees!

Tags: , , ,


  1. style guide  

    it's Lamont-Doherty

  2. Earth Science Major  

    That isn't post-colloquium beer. We drink hoegaarden and microbrews, and its not the development staff doing the drinking, its the students, faculty, and researchers. Also, the "important looking lobby" of lamont hall isn't particularly important to campus life up there, its mostly just the library. This is almost as bad as the geology library fiasco.

  3. also  

    technically, it's "next" time, rather than "nest" time

© 2006-2015 Blue and White Publishing Inc.