100 Years of History in Havemeyer

Photograph: Charles Frederick Chandler, center, with students at the School of Mines, in 1866.

Photograph: The nearly complete Havemeyer Hall, seen from Broadway in 1897.

By Bob Nelson

Now home to one of the top chemistry departments in the nation, where seven Nobel laureates studied, taught and researched, Havemeyer Hall will be celebrated next Monday with a reception, the first of two events marking the building's centennial.

It was on Nov. 4, 1896, that the daughter of Frederick Christian Havemeyer, an 1825 alumnus and founder of the American Sugar Co., laid Havemeyer's cornerstone.

Speakers will be President George Rupp and faculty of the department of chemistry, whose research program was ranked seventh in the nation last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Among the department's notables was Charles Frederick Chandler, its founder and, from 1866 to 1903, its first chairman. Another major figure was Harold C. Urey, who used spectroscopic methods to identify deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, within Havemeyer's walls in 1931, work that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry three years later.

Alumni who studied in Havemeyer and later won the Nobel include Irving Langmuir, who won in 1932; John Howard Northrop, 1946; William H. Stein, 1972; Roald Hoffman, 1981; Herbert A. Hauptman, 1985, and Sidney Altman, 1989.

Havemeyer is one of six McKim, Mead and White buildings that anchor Low Memorial Library on the upper campus. Faced in overburned Harvard brick and trimmed in Indiana limestone, the six-story building features a period amphitheater, where scenes for several movies (including "Ghostbusters") have been filmed. The building was expanded and renovated between 1984 and 1990.

"It's a beautiful building, and one that has assumed a place in the history of science that Chandler himself could not have imagined, as the birthplace of chemistry in America in the modern era," said Leonard Fine, director of undergraduate studies in the department.

Chandler, the moving force behind the construction of Havemeyer, came to Columbia's midtown campus as an instructor in chemistry, and in 1864 was appointed professor in the spanking-new School of Mines, then dean a year later. He was president of the New York Metropolitan Board of Health, which under his leadership cleaned up New York's slaughterhouses, introduced indoor plumbing and investigated watered-down liquor.

As Columbia began plans to move uptown, Chandler sought funds for a new chemistry building from the Havemeyers, for whom he did consulting work and supplied chemistry graduates for the sugar company's laboratories. In a letter dated Aug. 26, 1892, to Theodore A. Havemeyer, Frederick's son, he described his plans and added, "Perhaps you and your brothers would like to join together in building such a laboratory in honor of your father."

Frederick Havemeyer died in 1893, but Harry, his grandson, contributed $450,000 in 1896. Construction was completed late in 1897 and the first students entered the building in 1898. A bronze bas-relief of the elder Havemeyer faces the front portals.

Chandler gave the department of chemistry not only a building but a method of instruction. He introduced a system in which a professor and mentor trained a group of students, who then set up their own laboratories, first at other universities and later in industry. "Columbia, and Havemeyer, became the principal training center for Ph.D. chemists," Fine said.

Chandler's legacy persists in Chandler Laboratories, built to accommodate exponential growth in chemical research after World War I. The building, an annex to Havemeyer completed in 1928, houses the Chemistry Library as well as faculty labs. There is also the Chandler Museum Collection of early instruments, coal-based dyes and period photographs, in turn-of-the-century wood cabinets that once lined Havemeyer's corniced main hall. The collection, available by appointment, is now housed in Rooms 209 and 308.

More commemorations await. The American Chemical Society has designated Havemeyer a National Historic Chemical Landmark, because of Columbia's early role in setting education standards for both undergraduates and Ph.D. chemists. A ceremony and symposium are scheduled for Oct. 9, 1998.

Columbia University Record -- November 1, 1996 -- Vol. 22, No. 8