Mastering McKim's Plan: Columbia's First Century on Morningside Heights
October 8, 1997–January 17, 1998
In 1987, Columbia University's Low Library was named to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1996 the Lyndhurst Foundation named its steps one of America's great public places—recognitions in keeping with the early vision of former Columbia President Seth Low more than a century ago. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of its Morningside Heights campus, two fall exhibitions at Columbia University critically explore the architecture and planning history of the Morningside campus, revealing the story not of a cloistered ivory tower that one might expect, but one of an institution defining itself within the social, economic, and political context of the urban center which it chose as its home.
The exhibitions Mastering McKim's Plan: Columbia's First Century on Morningside Heights and Constructing Law Memorial Library: A Chronicle of a Monumental Enterprise will recount the rich architectural and planning history that continues to shape Columbia's future. The exhibitions will be on view at the Morningside Heights campus from October 8, 1997–January 17, 1998.
Seth Low's visionary leadership not only brought Columbia to the Morningside site a century ago, but ensured that planning and architecture would play an integral role in shaping the identity of the university. His keen sense of the monumental importance of a great university and the civic responsibility of such an institution was wholly reflected in the master plan commissioned in 1894 from Charles Follen McKim of the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White—a firm whose architectural presence is still felt in New York in the general Post Office, the Triumphal Arch in Washington Square, and the Brooklyn Museum. In addition to setting the tone, scale and pattern of the campus development, McKim's plan for the campus established that Columbia's development would be complexly intertwined with the growth of the city itself.
In a century during which Columbia created itself anew, McKim's plan has remained a constant source of debate. The inherent tensions between the original master plan and the New York City grid and issues such as modernism in design, urban renewal, and preservation have continued to challenge the University. The centennial of the Morningside Heights campus offers an ideal opportunity for a critical review of the master plan and responses to it by Columbia's administration, community, neighbors, and most importantly, its designers over the past 100 years.
Architectural renderings and drawings—in watercolor, pencil and ink, and computer-generated—as well as archival photographs, personal correspondence, and models illustrate the birth of a "metropolitan university" on the former site of the Bloomingdale Asylum. Items on view include plans for both realized and unrealized projects, and a large-scale version of McKim's plan will be reproduced on the main gallery's floor, enabling visitors to look, for example, to the south and explore issues relating to that area of campus.
A catalogue, with commentary by curators, will be available for purchase.
Mastering McKim's Plan: Columbia's First Century on Morningside Heights will be on view at the Wallach Art Gallery. It chronicles the story of McKim's master plan and its vicissitudes over the course of a century when the vision of the City Beautiful in both architecture and urban design has seen a remarkable fall from grace and return to critical reappraisal. The exhibition's curators are Barry Bergdoll, associate professor of art history, and Janet Parks, curator of Drawings and Archives at Columbia's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library.
Constructing Low Memorial Library: A Chronicle of a Monumental Enterprise will be on view in the Low Memorial Library Rotunda. The exhibition documents the construction of Low Library, the first of McKim's buildings to be constructed on the Morningside Heights campus. A dominant and defining architectural presence, it continues today to stand as a signature for Columbia and as a tribute to the cultural and educational values on which Columbia was built. The exhibition's curator is Hollee Haswell, curator of Columbiana.