Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

"They were beautiful, and they were original to the building," Dolkart said, describing the slatted, swinging doors.

To Dolkart, Columbia's unique campus design provides the University with community roots and a distinctive identity. However, when addressing the infrastructure demands of the present, Columbia has often had to make difficult and controversial decisions, balancing fiscal and physical space constraints while keeping true to the quality and style of the original campus design. Moreover, some charge that Columbia has not always been the best steward of its architectural legacy.

Columbia's unique architecture was the result of extensive planning and foresight by trustees and architect Charles McKim, who transformed the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum's Morningside Heights property in 1892 into a college campus designed in the classical style. At the time, trustees believed this progressive design would give Columbia the image of a forward-looking and distinguished institution of higher learning, a style which McKim and his firm continued to develop into the 1920s.

But since the 1930s, Columbia's track record of preserving the vision of the physical campus has gotten mixed reviews, particularly when the university commissioned designers to construct stylistically-controversial facilities such as Carman Hall, Uris Hall, and Seeley Mudd Hall.

"There are people of two groups of thought," said Sarah Kloze, associate director of exteriors and historic preservation at Capital Project Management. Some who believe "that you should mimic" and some who believe "that you should complement with modern design."

"I actually am really for really modern, really interesting complements to historic buildings," Kloze added.

Although the continual need for more resources and space is great, Kloze said Columbia is dedicated to preserving the existing buildings—using black and white photos from the 1930s as aesthetic references—rather than replacing them.

For Dolkart, historic preservation ties communities together through a shared physical environment.

"I think it's important that some of the historic fabric survive along with modern uses and modern change," he said. "At least from the point of view of architecture it deserves to be protected and cared for well."

Campus preservation doesn't only involve building facades, often campus art and interior retrofitting fall between the cracks.

Wallach Gallery Director Sarah Weiner and her Department of Art Properties look after sculptures around campus. Art Properties once had their own technician wax the bronze pieces such as The Thinker and Alma Mater, but that has since stopped. Weiner said her office does not have the budget right now to start a sculpture maintenance program employing external contractors.

Although these bronze sculptures may currently look well maintained, some pieces are badly in need of repair. According to Weiner, the black Curl sculpture in front of Uris Hall is rusting from the inside out, and the two elaborate St. Paul lamps are corroding, leaving a green-colored residue on their bases.

Dolkart also described how the lamps and railings on campus desperately need cleaning and repatination. "If you look at the lamps, a lot of the tops of lamps are gone. So there needs to a really concerted project to hire a metal conservatoire to restore all the bronze work on campus," Dolkart said.

"There really needs to be a collaboration between Art Properties and Facilities that would incorporate things like the torcheres and the railings too ... It's a matter of joining priorities," Weiner said. Money, however, is always an impeding factor. "With money you can do anything and do it fast," she said.

On the other hand, "sometimes lack of money can be quite useful in a way" when it prevents impulsive new construction, said history professor William Harris. A longtime faculty member, Harris sees Columbia's architecture as one of its "great glories" worthy of the utmost respect.

"We sometimes have narrowly missed some really shocking disasters," Harris said, recalling how when he first came to Columbia, one architect had the idea of building huge towers in the middle of south field for the biological sciences. "They would have destroyed the Columbia environment forever, and thank God for whatever reason—whether Columbia didn't have the money or whether they got sensible just at the eleventh hour—we were saved from that."

Another challenge involves retrofitting interiors. Geraldine Visco, classics department administrator, recalled renovation taking place in Hamilton Hall every summer since she has been working at Columbia. Although there are frequent modifications to Hamilton, Visco notices the results are not always of good quality or faithful to the original design.

"The people who are in charge of the campus ... tend to hire these outside people who have no understanding of Columbia. It's a conflict between business as usual ...and this historic tradition of Columbia," Visco said. In the past, according to Visco, heaters were incorrectly wired and paint jobs left incomplete while ceiling tiles occasionally fell on the heads of students and instructors during seminars.

While many believe Columbia has not been the best steward of its architectural resources in the past, architectural critics said they are pleased by the recent efforts to preserve and improve the physical campus' aesthetics.

Harris said maintenance is better now than in the past and calls the renovation of Butler Library a "terrific success," while for Visco, last summer's renovations to Hamilton were much better than previous work.

Dolkart described the repaving of College Walk as a job well done.

Furthermore, Dolkart said that he sees hope for the future in President Lee Bollinger's Manhattanville campus plans.

"I think that President Bollinger is very sensitive to design issues," he said, citing Bollinger's decision to have Renzo Piano carry out a campus planning study of Manhattanville.

"Manhattanville is an amazing clean slate or canvas, and I hope that it's a great collaboration of modern architects and site planners with unique public spaces and streetscapes," Kloze said.

ADVERTISEMENT
Newsletter