Parks and Miscreation
Written by Bwog Staff
In the March issue of The Blue and White, on campus tomorrow, Will Holt tells the same old story about Columbia, space, and expansion.
The upper campus of Columbia University is about the most miserable-looking place in Morningside Heights. In the space outside the Northwest Corner Building or Pupin, you’d think that you were standing in fascist Italy or the dystopian London of A Clockwork Orange. A few halfhearted attempts at green space and one too many broken bricks don’t exactly scream “livable design.”
But the real blight is that hellish, stinking pit between Schermerhorn, Fairchild, and Mudd. Ironically referred to as “the Grove,” the Columbia Facilities website describes the area as the University’s central waste management and recycling facility. A series of dumpsters emit a putrid smell of rot, while rumbling trucks in low gear make noisy deliveries from the entrance on Amsterdam Avenue at all hours. Here one finds both the digestive and evacuative functions of the University.
Surprisingly, the Grove wasn’t named by a some dark humorist. Rather, the nickname is a holdover from the original McKim, Mead & White campus plan: the Grove was an expansive, tree-covered park stretching along the northern end of campus—above Schermerhorn, Havermeyer, and University Hall (since replaced by Uris)—to 120th Street. The original Grove was just about the only green feature of the McKim design, which began at 116th Street and included no plans for what would become South Lawn.
In the initial design, McKim imagined two terraces roughly conforming to the slope of the landscape, with Low Library occupying the top of the hill and the Grove at its base; University Hall was to be the northernmost building on campus. The original sketches of that building are stunning, and The New York Times predicted in 1915 that the building “will rank second only to the [Low] Library in impressiveness.” It would house the offices for student organizations and other activities as well as clubrooms (think Lerner, only functionable). At both sides of the building, two flights of granite steps would lead from the campus down to the Grove, which was conceived of as an oasis in the midst of an urban university.
Of course, University Hall was never completed as McKim had designed it. In 1959, the Business School received permission to demolish the building’s single completed story and use its foundation for the construction of Uris Hall. True to form, Columbia scrapped its plans for what would have been its most beautiful and useful building on campus for what is one of its ugliest and least undergraduate-friendly.
In a 1977 piece on the history of the Morningside Heights campus, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians noted that, “the Trustees did not see the urgency of the problem of providing for a coherent expansion.” McKim had never intended for the Grove to be paved over, but that soon became an imperative. Columbia was running out of space.
On November 13, 1924, ground was broken in the Grove for two buildings intended to house the departments of Physics and Chemistry. According to Lionel Moses, the architect put in charge of this development by University President Nicholas Murray Butler, “There will be room for five more buildings in the Green. They will be constructed as needed.” At the time, the newly constructed Pupin was the largest building of its kind on any university campus, and Moses imagined his design at the cutting edge of science and engineering.
Observing these developments, The New York Times wrote in 1925: “That block between 116th and 120th Streets, Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, where patches of grassy campus were preserved, is fast changing in appearance. Short of the fountains and the figure of Alma Mater, it soon will be almost solidly built up.”
Such observations were prophetic, pointing to an inevitable trend at Columbia toward blind, unstoppable growth. The original plans for the campus included much more green space than exists today, including rhododendron gardens and a fountain in the Avery Quadrangle. Today, much of the campus north of Low has been paved over and heavily developed.
A letter dated August 5, 1926, from Butler’s office to one Henry Lee Norris, Esq., Director of Works, included notes on the University’s building program for “the next few years.” Butler’s plans featured the “erection of buildings for general and scientific purposes on the east side of the Green” as well as another “project on the Green for Chemical Engineering.”
Unfortunately, Butler’s plans were rudimentary at best, and the subsequent arrangement of buildings on upper campus proved chaotic and poorly managed. Various projects in the area was built piecemeal, culminating with the Northwest Corner Building in 2007 (consciously designed as a metaphorical bridge between the Morningside Heights campus and the recent developments in Manhattanville). The construction of Dodge Fitness Center in the 1960s signified the real death knell for the Grove. McKim’s lower platform was demolished and built over: the original two-tier arrangement of upper campus was turned into a single level.
In 1966, the Times rightly described the developments on upper campus as “uncoordinated and undistinguished,” suggesting “a kind of do-it-yourself planning based on a lack of administrative understanding of urban planning as a process, or as a source of superior design.
Limited space and the difficulties surrounding expansion have always been two of Columbia’s thorniest problems. Concerns about the character and integrity of the surrounding neighborhood have long meant that the University has had to make high-intensity use of its existing land, while also paying tribute to the original Beaux-Arts designs of McKim, Mead & White. More recently, preservationist groups like the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee and the Coalition to Preserve Community have fought long and often bitter battles over developments like the Northwest Corner Building and Manhattanville.
All urban universities have to grapple with the inherent limitations of their location. As this article is being written, both New York University and Fordham have embarked on massive expansions in Manhattan that have pitted them against their respective neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and Lincoln Square, as well as a litany of preservation groups across New York. The ongoing construction of Columbia’s Manhattanville campus has incited protests from not only local residents and business owners, but also University students and faculty.
But the quest for ever larger endowments means finding ever more space. As Butler realized in the 1920s, greater revenue necessitates expansion, and the development of the Grove was seen as an imperative for the continuing success of the University. The most important consideration for any school is not whether such developments should take place at all but rather how they can be done smartly. On this front, Columbia has a notably poor track record. Instead of green space, we get a garbage pit; instead of a useful student center, a useless series of vertiginous ramps. As the University moves forward with its Manhattanville expansion, the history of the Grove deserves its consideration.