Low Plaza

Preserving A Neighborhood: Columbia Uncovers and Restores Morningside History

By Lauren Marshall

The restored stoop of a townhouse on 546 114thSt.

When Bill Scott, Columbia's deputy vice president for Institutional Real Estate (IRE), repaired the balconies at two turn-of-the-century apartments on Claremont Drive, he was on the cusp of an institutional trend. Rather than replacing the weakening steel and terracotta balconies with a modern alternative, Scott had the structures removed, rebuilt and replaced and in doing so preserved the original look of the building's facade.

That was in 1985. Since then, Columbia has completed a string of historic restorations that have brought Morningside Heights' rich architectural history to the fore.

Hundreds of replaced windows, repaired and repainted building cornices, reconstructed stained glass windows and a few new storefronts and building stoops later, Columbia has demonstrated its commitment to the preservation of its historic buildings. As the resources of the University have grown, so has its financial support of building preservation. Last year alone, more than $20 million was spent on renovations and restorations. In the next five years the University will spend more than $100 million.

The University's preservation efforts have had a positive impact on a neighborhood that for decades has worn the scars of past economic hard times.

"Although it has been a slow, gradual process, I believe the steps we are taking are making a difference in our neighborhood," said Emily Lloyd, executive vice president for administration, who has helped lead the University in its current policy of institutional preservation. "By preserving what remains and restoring where we can, we hope to keep the look and feel of the neighborhood alive."

To date, 65 pre-war buildings in the neighborhood have been touched by careful reconstruction and repair that in some cases have uncovered original architectural details and design that had been forgotten behind quick fixes made years ago. This year more than 20 historic buildings will receive special attention repairs, turning back the clock.

"Most of the buildings in the neighborhood were constructed in the early 20th century," said Scott, who has managed Columbia's IRE operation for 16 years, "and over time have suffered not only from deterioration but also from inappropriate modernization and the removal of ornamentation. Unlike most modern architecture, ornamentation is integral to the design of these buildings and its removal is jeopardizing the integrity of the streetscape."

In many ways, Scott's is the role of detective, using architectural probes, historical research and data gathered from informants as guidance for future projects.

The lionheads on this cornice at 445 Riverside Drive, are a replica of the decaying originals that were replaced.

It is through Professor Andrew Dolkart, architectural historian and expert on Morningside Heights, that Scott learned of the history behind the building at 539 112th Street and worked to preserve it. Designed by the brother architectural team, Blum & Blum, the building was considered to be the most innovative apartment built in the neighborhood in 1909. But the modern-looking building accented by utilitarian balconies and a simple crisscrossed brick façade had been worn down by time. Its wooden windows were deteriorating, black paint was chipping off and tenants were complaining of drafts.

To restore it, Scott went as far as Ontario, Canada, in search of a proper replacement for the original multi-paned windows. He also had consultants analyze the paint samples to find the original colors of windows and balconies. Now the building stands out on the block much as it did when it was built, with pea-green multi-paned windows drawing the attention of passersby.

These little details, while unnoticeable to some, are much appreciated by others, like Carolyn Kent, preservationist and Morningside Heights resident. "100 years later Bill Scott is doing his best by this building, adding the right paint color, the right windows, right down to the right door. While it doesn't seem like it is too important, it is," said Kent, who is working to have Morningside Heights designated as a historic district.

Another Blum & Blum building on Riverside Drive, where the finest turn-of-the-century residences face the adjacent park, was another discovery of history by Scott. In the dark lobby, the plain plaster walls seemed to be in stark contrast to the magnificence of the building's entrance and polished green and gray marble floors.

Knowing what the architects were capable of, Scott set out to find the lobby's original design and discovered it beneath layers of gray plaster walls. The simple, recessed trim that lined each wall panel had been hidden for years. Paint analysis revealed that the walls had been painted in a brown faux stone finish. Scott had the trim recast from the original. Today the lobby looks the way it did when it opened its doors in 1911.

"Most of our buildings are the original structures constructed in the neighborhood and are thus part of the collective memory of Morningside Heights. They are also the face we show to the world and it is a pleasure to be part of the University's effort to restore and preserve them," said Scott.

Preserving the Morningside Heights' historical heritage became policy in 1996, when the University embarked on a project that has become a guide for historic preservation and contextual development in the area. The Morningside Heights, A Framework for Planning, which chronicles two years of conversation among historians, preservationists, architects and administrators, outlines the heritage of the neighborhood and Columbia's McKim, Mead and White campus.

Kent, who has watched the University with skepticism over the years, said, "It is right that this great University should recognize its environs and set an example as a leader in preservation."

Published: Jan 25, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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