Staff Writer Viviana Pereyo joined architectural historian Andrew Dolkart on a walking tour of Morningside Heights that revealed the neighborhood’s past and relationship with many educational institutions.

This Wednesday, Professor Andrew Dolkart led a walking tour of Morningside Heights, which consisted of discussing the designs of Columbia, Barnard, Teachers College, and Union Theological Seminary. The tour met at the Columbia gates on 116th and Amsterdam, which was the intended main entrance when the university was designed.

Columbia wasn’t always located in Morningside Heights. Columbia bought out the land for its campus from the New York Hospital, which sold it to the university in pieces in order to make more profit. New York Hospital gave Columbia priority in buying the land, and so the vast majority of Columbia’s campus as well as Barnard’s comes from this. 

Yet—why did Columbia decide to move north? The development patterns for New York at the time started in Manhattan after it became one of the most important commercial centers in the 1800s. Commerce had no place to go except north. As commerce moved up, it displaced residents. This growth continued until 59th street, where a law was finally set in place to limit this massive commercial push toward the north.

Morningside Heights was a good location to buy from because it was economically reasonable for three reasons. First, it was geographically isolated—valleys, plateaus, and mountains meant the location was less desirable for commerce. Second, it was the home of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, and the huge stigma around mental illness at the time mean that not many wanted to set up businesses or residences in a place with these neighbors. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was inconvenient for mass transit. The railroad, which was the main mode of transportation at the time, reached 110th street and curved to Harlem, which is called the S curve. Since transit skipped over Morningside Heights, most investors went to Harlem instead. Today, it’s relatively easy to get to Columbia using the 1 line on the subway, but this didn’t exist back then.

Wealthy people in America traveled to Europe and marveled at the museums, operas, and beautiful universities that their country did not have. Because of this sentiment, there was a huge expansion of institutional-building campaigns. Seth Low, the president of Columbia at the time, had a vision for an urban university that fit into the ideals of this rapidly changing city. He hired Charles McKim to carry out this vision.

McKim is the one who set the campus to look south, which as a design is a little unusual. People came into the campus through Amsterdam. Columbia bought the street on the condition that it would only close one day a year, for graduation. The beginning of College Walk (starting at Amsterdam) gives you a clear view of the campus’s symmetrical design. 

McKim used subtle Renaissance styles to try to focus attention on the campus rather than what was outside of it, which at the time, was mostly just nice views. If you walk through the beginning of College Walk, next to Kent Hall, you can see an urn next to Low Steps. When you hit the center of Kent Hall, you can see the second urn. When you hit the end of Kent Hall, there is a small wall that blocks your vision of the full area until you take a couple of steps forward. McKim did this intentionally in his pursuit to focus attention on the campus, not on what’s outside. The big reveal of Low Plaza is supposed to be part of the WOW factor.

Since Columbia didn’t have a lot of money left over after buying the campus, McKim’s master plan for building Columbia was divided into pieces. The first phase focused on Low Library, whose design has some influence from the Pantheon in Rome, as well as four other buildings: Fayerweather, Schermerhorn, Havemeyer, and Mathematics. Although these buildings were paid for mostly by the people they are named after, there was no funding for Low Library, which was supposed to be what held the plan together. 

Seth Low then donated 1 million dollars for the construction of Low Library, hence the name, which became hugely popular in the news. The “honorable” money that Columbia received from Low’s inheritance which came from “honest money in trade,” was compared to UChicago’s funding with “dishonest money” from exploiting natural resources.

The second phase of McKim’s plan—which included a chapel, a student center, Earl Hall, University Hall where Uris is now located, and more—was never completed because it was intended to be funded by alumni, but they were pretty parsimonious. He also intended for several inter-buildings (buildings between buildings) to be built. However, Avery was the only one ever constructed.

The Low Library plaza was meant to be very welcoming, with Alma Mater in the middle, originally gilded. There is an owl hidden in her robes that is supposed to represent the search for knowledge. 

At the entrance to Low Library, there is a statue of Athena. Under that statue, McKim put in the Zodiac from alumni George William Maynard. Unfortunately, there are carpets on top of them, but you can try lifting the carpets to look at them. There are also green columns made of Connemara marble from western Ireland. Low wanted to make all the pillars near the entrance from this material but was not able to due to the size of the pillars. This room was restored two years ago, so the colors on the walls are bright again.

The main reading room of Low Library is now rarely used. There was an artificial moon that functioned like a light on the roof of this room, and around it was the night sky. If you look up “the Moon in Low Library,” you can find several images of what it used to look like. One of the windows in Low Library is currently being restored.

Low had a vision for Columbia as a part of city life. The next president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, had a different vision for it as a more prestigious, closed-off institution. Butler fired architects McKim, Mead, and White and hired a new architect to build Butler Library.

The chapel was once considered the second most important building in a university. McKim was in charge of designing most buildings, but when the university got funding from a family who wanted a certain architect, Columbia hired the architect they requested for that building. The Stokes family funded St. Paul’s Chapel on the condition that their young nephew, Phelps Stokes, could design it. He had a vision for a North Italian Renaissance chapel, and the interior of the chapel is what makes it a masterpiece. He used Guastavino tiles, which didn’t need scaffolding and had a nice pattern on them that could be mass-produced. The Chapel is sometimes called an “honest building,” because you can see its entire structure just by stepping inside. It has beautiful salmon-colored brick that was cleaned a couple of years back but remains in good condition despite its age. On the stained glass windows at the top of the chapel, you can see the coats of arms of families who were important to Columbia. The woodwork inside comes from Florence. The outside of the chapel is mainly made up of limestone, and behind the torchettes (torchlights) there is a cross surrounded by scallop shells. This is meant to be a welcoming symbol. Stokes considered this chapel his masterpiece and asked for him and his wife to be buried in it, so their remains are still inside the Chapel today.

Teachers College was a quasi-independent institution that did have the intention of joining Columbia. However, Teachers College was primarily made up of women, and as Columbia did not want to be co-ed, it ended up in a similar position to Barnard, so it can only give out Columbia degrees. There had been debate on whether to name the neighborhood Morningside Heights or Cathedral Heights. However, Teachers College was adamant about the area not being called Cathedral Heights due to differing religious beliefs. They also argued that they had already printed out signs with Morningside Heights written and could not afford to print new ones. Because of these reasons, the area was ultimately named Morningside Heights. 

Columbia has a checkered history with architecture. In the post-war period, Columbia became one of the worst patrons of architecture among the Ivy League, which is why we have Uris! And Shapiro! And the engineering school! They’re not HORRIBLE looking, but they’re out of place compared to the rest of the campus and mess up the vision for Columbia that McKim, Low, and many others had. Columbia also took a piece out of Union Theological Seminary to make Union Tower, which makes it look a little less complete. The tower is still gorgeous, though; it’s just a shame that they had to demolish a part of UTS to make it.

The rooms in Teachers College are hidden gems, and there are Grueby tiles along some halls which can be distinguished by their alligator finish. At the entrance to Dodge, there are mosaic tiles of women doing work such as candle-making, baking, and more.

Teachers College also practiced manual education, which meant training the mind, the hand, and the body. Many pictures in Teachers College show groups of women with very few men, which makes sense since it was a female-dominated institution. Grace Dodge donated a lot of money that went into building Teachers College and running it.

That was all that was covered in this tour, although for more information, you are free to check out Professor Dolkart’s award-winning book, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development or keep an eye out for his next tour on campus.

Low Library via Bwog Archives