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Columbia and Trinity Church Celebrate the 1754 Founding of King's College

By Jerry Kisslinger


In a primal sort of pilgrimage, Columbia University recently returned to its origins in Lower Manhattan . Faculty, alumni, students and staff joined with leaders and congregants of Trinity Church Wall Street in marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of King's College by royal charter of King George II in 1754. A civic service of commemoration and anniversary luncheon in November celebrated Trinity's role in the birth of King's College, colonial forebear of one of the world's great research universities.

In opening the ceremony, Trinity's Rector, the Reverend Daniel Paul Matthews, invited celebrants to take “a sacred pause, to reflect on the significance of beginnings and the importance of history.” Among those reflecting was Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, who spoke of the bonds between the two institutions and their shared commitments to spiritual life, the search for truth and leadership in the city. Expressing pride in Columbia 's role in building New York , Bollinger quipped that the University had provided “everything from the sewers to the mayors.”

Reverend Daniel Paul Matthews and President Bollinger presented to the City a plaque designating the site of the original campus of King's College.

Further perspectives came from Kenneth Jackson, president of the New-York Historical Society and the Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences at Columbia . Jackson is co-Chair of Columbia 250 along with Trustee Chair Emeritus Henry King, also in attendance. Jackson is currently a Trinity vestreyman and King has also served on the Trinity vestry.

The story of the College's founding and early growth was elaborated by Robert M. McCaughey, Ann Whitney Olin professor of history at Barnard College . McCaughey has just published “Stand Columbia,” a single-volume interpretive history of the University. As the Trinity Choir sang a medley of works by alumni Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, even “My Funny Valentine,” sounded almost hymn-like in the layered harmonies of the arrangement and the resonance of the nave.

Matthews and Bollinger then presented to the City a plaque designating the site of the original campus of King's College. Soon to be installed in the wall surrounding Trinity's churchyard, it replaces a plaque created for Columbia 's bicentennial in 1954, which disappeared during student protests in the early 1970s. Carl Weisbrod, President of the Alliance for Downtown New York, and Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Robert Tierney received the new plaque on behalf of the City and extended congratulations to both Trinity Church and its secular offspring.

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the service, Trinity also unveiled “The Birth of Columbia University in Lower Manhattan,” an exhibition mounted outdoors on the church's South Porch, steps away from the grave of Alexander Hamilton, the most illustrious member of the King's College student body. The exhibition closed on Nov. 16.

Following the service (and a wind-blasted walk down Wall Street to a nearby hotel), guests attended a luncheon featuring remarks by Ric Burns. A Columbia alumnus and acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Burns spoke on the historical importance of Lower Manhattan , the “engine of the city,” and “launching pad for the modern world.”

It was a day of welcome opportunities in a historic setting, a chance for both Columbia and Trinity to celebrate a common heritage older than the nation, and for Columbians to deepen their collective self-understanding in the midst of the 250th anniversary year. After all, as President Bollinger said, “Everyone wants to know his birthplace, to see where he came from.”

To view the full text of Ric Burns' remarks entitled, “Some Thoughts on Lower Manhattan on the Occasion of Columbia University's 250th Birthday,” visit the C250 Web site.

Published: Jan 05, 2004
Last modified: Apr 26, 2004

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