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  Charles McKim's Master Plan for Columbia  
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One segment of Andrew Dolkart's three-part series of lectures and walking tours on New York City architecture addresses the design of Columbia University's campus. The vision of architects McKim, Mead, & White in designing this space at the turn of the twentieth century is explained with great energy and interesting detail.
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  Charles McKim's design for Columbia is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular urban designs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. McKim was given a clear slate, and he had to come up with a design that would create both a spectacular image for Columbia and be a dramatic place in which to enter. The campus buildings had to be planned in such a way that they could be built piecemeal, because Columbia did not have enough money to build everything all at once. So he came up with a plan that is a series of separate buildings that could be built one by one.

The entry into the campus is, I think, one of the most dramatic that you will find anywhere. You enter the campus from either Amsterdam Avenue or Broadway, and it is very important to remember when you enter the campus that the area to the south, what is now South Campus, was not owned by Columbia in the late 1890s. And in fact, Columbia did not expect that they would buy it, they expected that it would be developed with row houses. And in addition, 116th Street was not College Walk—as it is today—but it was a through street. So you come in on the sidewalk on what was the north side of 116th Street from Amsterdam Avenue, and immediately you know that you have arrived at an impressive, grand complex of buildings. Right at the edge of the lot line on 116th Street is a classroom building [Kent Hall] with a high granite base and a very monumental feel, and it is echoed on the other side by an equally grand and monumental building [Dodge Hall].

So you know that you have a symmetrical campus and that it basically is going to be laid out to the north, because you can see that there is a void in between the buildings that are now Kent and Dodge Halls, but you do not know what is there.

And what is so brilliant about McKim's plan is that he holds it off to the very last minute. McKim does something very subtle. Subconsciously your eye focuses on a giant over-scaled urn that is on the side of the building on the other end of the campus. And that urn draws your attention to the campus design. As you walk down the walk toward the buildings, you focus on this urn. By the time you have reached midway along the building—in this case Kent Hall, because we have walked in off of Amsterdam Avenue—you do not really know very much more now than you did when you entered the campus. But one other thing has happened, and it has to do with this subtle use of the urns.

As you reach midway in your walk, a second urn comes into view. So McKim is very subtly moving your eye into the north, onto the campus so you will continue to focus on the campus. At the very last moment, you walk past the wall of Kent Hall—or Dodge Hall if you are approaching from Broadway—and suddenly your eye goes shooting up the flights of stairs to the great domed Low Library.

The centerpiece of the Columbia plan is Low Library. It is appropriate that the library is the center of the campus. The library is the only building that is clad entirely in stone, and it is the grandest presence on the campus, with its monumental columns and its very impressive low dome.

The building is modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, the greatest of all surviving ancient Roman buildings and a symbol of learning and knowledge in the ancient world, so it was an appropriate symbol for Columbia. And then there are three secondary buildings that surround Low Library. To the east of Low Library is St. Paul's Chapel, a spectacularly beautiful building that was put as a secondary building despite the fact that when the campus was planned, Columbia was still affiliated with the Episcopal Church. To the west of Low Library is Earl Hall, which was a student community building. And to the north was what was going to be called University Hall. University Hall was going to have a gymnasium and also a power plant in the basement. Up above would be a very impressive building with a refectory, because Columbia had no restaurants in the area and there was a need for a place where the students and the faculty could eat. There would also be an auditorium that was large enough to hold the entire Columbia community. And there would be a Memorial Hall as well, modeled after the idea of Harvard's Memorial Hall.

University Hall was to be paid for by the alumni, and that is why it was never built, because there is no history of fundraising in the early years of Columbia, and the alumni were so parsimonious that they never gave the money to build the building. So Columbia built the gym and the power plant, but the upper portion of the building was never built.

And then there are twelve tertiary buildings, and these are the red-brick classical buildings that were massed in such a way as to create four intimate courtyards. Now unfortunately, three of these planned buildings were never built, so only one of these courtyards was actually completed. So there are still three unbuilt sites on the Columbia campus.

Another important part of the design of South Court is the paving, which still retains its original red brick that was laid in a herringbone pattern. This adds to the classical feel of the campus, because the Forum in Rome is also paved in bricks laid in a herringbone pattern. And so the use of this brickwork really complements the Pantheon-like design of Low Library.

The public was welcome onto South Court, but they really were not welcome onto the upper part of the campus because that was really for the college community. And so this is very clear in the stairs. The stairs that lead up onto the South Court is very low and very gentle, but the stairs get increasingly steep, and they subconsciously tell you that you are not really welcome up there unless you have business up on the campus.

And so as the students and the faculty are walking up the increasingly steep flights of stairs toward the Library, climbing the stairway to knowledge, they pass the Alma Mater statue, which is a symbol of Columbia. Charles McKim had planned a statue for the site in the heart of the open space of South Court, but the actual design for the statue was not planned until a donor gave money in the early twentieth century. Daniel Chester French, one of the great American sculptors, was commissioned to design Alma Mater as an allegorical sculpture symbolizing what the university is all about. Typical of this period, Alma Mater is a woman, despite the fact that there were no female students during this period. And the statue is filled with ornament that bespeaks a university. There is an open book of learning, torches of knowledge, and other symbols of learning and knowledge. And as you go up the stairs searching for knowledge, knowledge does not come easily. And this is evident in the Alma Mater sculpture, because hidden in the sculpture is an owl, a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, but you have to search for it to find this knowledge. And so that is incorporated into the design of the statue.

When you get to the top of the stairs at Low Library, you look south onto what is now South Campus. And in the early twentieth century, Columbia purchased the land south of the original campus, between 116th Street and 114th Street, and brought McKim, Mead, and White back to design a new master plan for the expanded campus, which included two classroom buildings and a series of dormitory buildings, because now Columbia was going to become a school with dormitories, which they had never had before.

But they had no plan for the center space where Butler Library is now located. And this presence of Butler Library changes the idea that Charles McKim and Seth Low had for the university plan. Seth Low's vision was one of a university that was in and of the city, and the idea was that you could come and stand at the top of the stairs before you entered Low Library and look south over the city so that you could see it from the top of the stairs at Low Library. And the city could look up to Columbia as well, so that they would be integrated together. But when Butler Library was built in the 1930s, it closed off the vista entirely, and it really changes the idea, so that now Columbia appears as an enclosed campus, rather than a campus that looks out to the city, which was the original idea.