When McKim, Mead, and White built the Morningside Heights campus in the first quarter of the 20th century, they could never have imagined that, 100 years later, a sleek, steel, 188,000-square-foot building with seven stories of interdisciplinary science labs and a marble-floored café would sit alongside the likes of Pupin and Havemeyer. But today, the Northwest Corner Building is a shining testament to Columbia’s position as both academic and architectural vanguard.
Now, a committee of preservationists and Community Board 9 are ramping up their efforts to limit such construction. The Morningside Heights Historic District Committee has lobbied for historic district protection for years. It is a designation that, had it been implemented five years ago, would have prohibited any of the bold design choices that went into NoCo. Last month, CB9 passed a resolution calling on the City Planning Commission to consider contextual rezoning restrictions in Morningside. These would include height and design standards that would have to conform to the historic precedent of surrounding buildings.
While we don’t claim to be preservation experts, an important factor of historic district designation is the casual observer’s aesthetic tastes. We believe that placing any type of blanket restriction on Morningside Heights would unnecessarily impede the growth and creativity inherent in Columbia’s status as a world-class university.
In preservationists’ minds, Columbia has an abysmal track record. Aside from the demolition of 17 acres of old manufacturing posts to make room for Manhattanville, the University tore down three brownstones on 115th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive in 2010, much to the neighborhood’s chagrin. The fact that those lots remain undeveloped today sends the message that the University does not care about the historical significance of those buildings. Administrators also have not been present at any recent meetings of the historic district committee, adding to the tension.
Preservationists feel similarly about the Northwest Corner Building. “This is not a building that makes any pretense of respecting campus or neighborhood context,” Gregory Dietrich, the historic district committee’s adviser, wrote in 2010. But just because a building’s design is initially jarring does not mean it rejects its surroundings. NoCo’s partial glass curtain reflects much of the architecture around it. And, as then-architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff noted in the New York Times when NoCo opened, the building’s base is made of the same granite as its McKim-designed neighbors. It is also shorter than the tower McKim had originally proposed to build there, and it is more publicly accessible than any other building on the Morningside campus, with Joe the Art of Coffee serving as an crow’s nest toward northern Broadway.
It sometimes seems like the principles of preservation could never be compatible with many of the styles embraced by modern architecture. How could buildings as daring as the new Business School in Manhattanville possibly reflect the aesthetic of a landmark like Pupin? This is not to argue the wisdom of preservation. Its successful implementation in Hamilton Heights and along Central Park West has kept the history of these neighborhoods alive visually. But historic designation is a dangerous precedent to set in a college town, where growth is critical for the University’s wellbeing, and, by extension, the wellbeing of its neighbors. Columbia is the main economic engine of Morningside Heights. Its ability to construct vibrant new buildings shows prospective students, researchers, and donors alike that it is committed to higher academic pursuits.
Instead, we propose a contract between Columbia and the community board that reconciles forward-thinking architecture with historical significance, as the designs of NoCo and Manhattanville do. Universities are meant to be sites of innovation, and Columbia needs space to build. But with Columbia administrators largely absent from recent public debates over preservation, locals rightly feel like the University has turned a blind eye to their wishes. Columbia and the preservationists both love Morningside Heights. They should find a way to work together to make it appealing for both the mind and the eye.
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