The Blog

Katherine Whatley (BC ’17) – Preserving Columbia’s architecture and history

One day on College Walk as I admired Low Library, it occurred to me, what will students see when they stand on College Walk some two hundred years from now? Will they see Butler and wonder what it looked like inside before it was converted to a computer mainframe? Will they wave at their friends on the steps or stop and chat for a few minutes with a classmate from their English seminar about the latest upgrade to the English Wiki? Will they sit on the lawn on a warm day in April, pouring over glowing tablets, stopping every so often to look up at the impressive facade of Low Library? Or maybe they just might see those infamous phallic shaped fountains, wondering as we do, what our forefathers were thinking.

The neoclassical buildings that define our campus are so imposing they appear to almost have grown out of the ground, as offshoots of the bedrock of Manhattan. Yet their existence is much more tenuous than you might imagine. After a mere hundred and ten years or so since many of the buildings were built, almost no original interiors remain intact, and many have be subject to unsympathetic renovations or disrepair.

Columbia’s original Morningside campus was designed by the preeminent architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, who designed many New York landmarks, including the original Penn Station and the main branch of the New York Public Library. Envisioned as a university campus with small, intimate courtyards, the new Morningside campus was meant to be a welcoming place to study that was well integrated in the urban fabric of New York. The remaining McKim, Mead, and White buildings on campus include Philosophy, John Jay, Low Library, and Avery. Even though much of the original landscaping has been altered or never implemented, one can still glimpse what the vision of courtyards coupled with striking buildings would have looked like by going to the courtyard between Avery and Fayerweather.

Some of our buildings are protected to varying degrees by virtue of being named historically significant sites. The facades of Casa Italiana, Philosophy Hall, Pupin Library and the interior of Low Library are on the National Register of Historic Places, which means Columbia receives tax incentives from the federal government to preserve these buildings deemed to be of historical significance. These same buildings, as well as St Paul’s, are unalterable due to being on the New York City Designated Landmarks registry. Unfortunately, others, including Avery Hall and Kent Hall, have no restrictions and thus may not stand the test of time.

However, historic status only goes so far. Even for buildings with historic status, there are no provisions for requiring Columbia to keep them well maintained. As Professor Andrew Dolkart, Director of the Historic Preservation Program and the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation, put it: “Columbia doesn’t maintain it campus as it should” given that we have some of the “greatest architectural monuments in the United States [on our campus].”

Columbia also has no impetus to keep the campus’s landscaping original. Professor Dolkart points to the “characteristic deep red bricks” of Columbia’s walkways — currently cracked, loose and dangerous. Instead of disinvesting from its campus to the extent that students are in danger of tripping from the beautiful bricks on the walkways, Professor Dolkart thinks that the walkways are a prime opportunity our administration is overlooking. The sheer scale of the operation would allow a brick factory to custom make the bricks to the historic specifications Columbia needs. This would allow for a more beautiful, historically accurate campus that Columbia deserves.

When Columbia decides to beautify its campus, it does things well. Professor Dolkart points to the lamps outside many of our buildings. Not so many years ago, these lamps were rusted, had parts missing, and were truly an eyesore. Just recently, Columbia decided to have all of them fixed. Parts were recast and new glass was put into many of them. Now, they are restored in all their glory. Unfortunately, these lamps are the exception to the rule of disinvestment in our historic campus.

The reality is Columbia needs to start spending more money in order to preserve the historic character of our campus for generations of students to come. According to the Fiscal Year 2013 Report published by Columbia Facilities, of the 284 million dollars Columbia spent on construction, a mere nine million went to “historic preservation projects on campus and in the community.” Given that a majority of our buildings on campus are historic, why the lack of spending on preserving, maintaining, and protecting our characteristic neoclassical buildings? According to Professor Dolkart, the more decrepit the original buildings become, the harder it will be to maintain them, let alone renovate them to their original splendor.

What will be the backdrop of the Columbia Class of 2214’s graduation? Will they too see the splendor of the Beaux Arts vision that is our Morningside campus? Or will the years and years of lack of spending mean an irrevocably altered campus missing its history? It is time for Columbia to choose to start planning for the future; our buildings and their history deserve to be preserved for generations to come.

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