Columbia Library columns (v.44(1995))

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  v.44,no.2(1995:Autumn): Page 14  

Barry Bergdoll

Since the mid-1850s a portion of the faculty
had advocated elevating Columbia from a college
to a university, a semantic change that represent¬
ed the corporation's metamorphosis from a
parochial training ground for New York's elite
into a research institution with a self-conscious
metropolitan dut)'."* Thomas Bender has recently
argued persuasively that the Trustees endorsed
this new role for Columbia in the city's life when
they selected businessman and former Brooklyn
Mayor Seth Low (class of 1870) as a new breed of
university president in 1890.^ Low was conscious
of the perils facing a nonacademic at the head of
an institution proud of its tradition and its adher¬
ence to the classical curriculum. But he was dedi¬
cated to a vision of the University, which he was
intent upon crafting into a unified family of facul¬
ties capable of rivaling the great German universi¬
ties American educators increasingly admired.
The founding of the University Council in 1890
was the first step in an administrative centraliza¬
tion of Columbia. This and the new name for his
alma mater, "Columbia University in the City of
New York," were great sources of pride for Low.
The creation of the new campus crowned by a
library bearing his father's name was to consoli¬
date these reforms.

The story of Columbia's decision to abandon
its cramped midtown campus at 49th Street and
Madison Avenue for the more spacious and ver¬
dant grounds of the Bloomingdale Asylum is well
known.^ In late spring of 1892 the Trustees soUcit-
ed the advice of three prominent New York archi¬
tects on planning the new site, determined that
the campus should grow by reason rather than the
ad hoc necessity that had reigned at the 49th
Street site. The "commission" of Charles Coolidge

Haight, Richard Morris Hunt, and Charles Follen
McKim (who represented the firm of McKim,
Mead & White) echoed the tensions within the
faculty and Trustees between advocates of the clas¬
sical curriculum and those endorsing Columbia's
movement toward the modern research university
modeled on Johns Hopkins and the elective sys¬
tem of Charles Norton Elliot's Harvard. Haight,
who had designed the brick Victorian Gothic
buildings at 49th Street, represented tradition. He
proposed a cloistered approach to the new site,
allowing him to expand on the collegiate associa¬
tions of his Gothic and complement the
Romanesque design recently selected for the
cathedral of St John the Divine.' Both Hunt and
McKim had trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
In 1892 they were immersed in designing aspects
of the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago,
viewed then and ever since as the seminal
moment in America's adaptation of the classical
rhetoric and the large-scale, formal planning of
Beaux-Arts France. Hunt proposed a unified
scheme for the Morningside Heights campus with
a large central courtyard, combining the unim¬
peachable logic of French hospital planning with
the monumental grandeur of Chicago's Court of
Honor. McKim too proposed a formal courtyard
arrangement but with a vital difference: his com¬
plex featured a great open courtyard facing south
to 116th Street, the whole landscaped to take
advantage of the rise on the site with its magnifi¬
cent views south towards the city and west to the
Hudson. The courtyards were to create a strict
hierarchy of buildings designed with "pure classi¬
cal forms, as expressing in the simplest and most
monumental way the purposes to which the build¬
ings are devoted," and with strict attention to the

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  v.44,no.2(1995:Autumn): Page 14