The scene: Columbia, 1939. The school is buzzing with excitement for an opening gala after six months of planning. In attendance, according to the Feb. 10, 1939 issue of Spectator: multiple celebrities, University President Nicholas Murray Butler, 200 merry students, and the "buxom" singer of "The Boys From Syracuse," Wynn Murray. Gathering first at John Jay Hall, the crowd then descended into the bowels of what the unnamed 1939 Spectator staff writer described as Columbia's first "long-needed hangout place," a fraternal venue with a homely interior that would provide cheap beer and live music for the all-male student body.
At its inception, the venue in John Jay's basement was called "The Lion's Den." While the unassuming wooden structure of the dining hall has remained constant over its 81-year lifespan, the space's function and atmosphere have shifted along with the University over time.
Today, of course, we know it as JJ's Place. For most of its life, however, it was called "the Pub."
Having frequented the Pub in its early decades, Jerry Springer, who graduated from Columbia College in 1955, pauses often as he recounts his experiences in the student bar. He admits that some of his memories are hazy, worn smooth with the passage of time.
"Let's see… Dark, loud… wooden. People were relatively friendly. You could go to other bars where people were friendly, but it was at Columbia," he says. The Pub's centrality in student life was derived from how closely it was integrated into the physical and social fabric of campus.
When Springer attended Columbia, the Pub was open until 10 or 11 p.m. and served as more of a campus-endorsed pregame area then an endpoint for the night. Over drinks, students could congregate to see friends and acquaintances from class before moving on to the West End, a bar across Broadway, or down to the West Village. Food was also served, but the Pub had one driving purpose.
Springer says students were just as economical in their alcohol purchasing habits then as they are today. "Beer. Primarily beer," he says, explaining the popularity of the Pub. "The prices were cheaper than the bars on Broadway. That partly was the attraction," Springer remembers.
The Pub also served as a general social place. It was common for the floor to be cleared out for dancing to live music and for student-run events.
One of these events, Springer describes, was "the 'ugly man contest,' in which we voted for the professor who we thought was the ugliest. … Which is pretty dumb, but I still have my yearbook with Mr. Dawson, who won the contest, and he was proud of it, I guess," he explains, laughing.
Graphic by Emily Li
Rounding out the 1950s, the Pub enjoyed a sort of golden age as the premier bar on campus, and even in the Upper West Side community at large. Published in 1960, a Spectator article written by Columbia student Jim Lynch noted that the student bar had become a cultural hot spot for music performances in Morningside Heights.
"John Jay Pub, quickly becoming the premier (did someone say only) rock club north of 110th Street, will present two Columbia bands on Wednesday. … Bands like the Ex-Husbands and the Mystery Dates play fun, danceable music that insures good times for all those who attend, so put away the books a little early on Wednesday night and go down to the Pub," the article reads.
Following this optimistic period, however, the University was subject to volatile national and citywide currents that would morph its reputation, carrying the Pub along in its wake. The 1960s brought campus-wide countercultural riots to Columbia over a university administration alleged to be involved in systemic racism and military research. New York City was on the cusp of bankruptcy in the 1970s, with unpaid police, firemen, and other civil servants standing by as the city officials pleaded with creditors.
By the time Dennis Ryan, who graduated from Columbia College in 1986, arrived on campus in 1982, crime rates in Morningside Heights were high enough that students and New Yorkers alike made concessions to safety that might be unthinkable today. "To enter Central Park, people would subway down to 86th [Street] instead of crossing through Amsterdam [Avenue], because nobody smart would do that," he remembers.
Ryan recalls once, when he was walking up to see a movie on 125th Street, he spotted a dead body lying on the street.
As New York City grew more dangerous, the Pub lost some of its luster. "It was everything bad about New York one could imagine back then. … The word I'm looking for is gritty," Ryan says.
Ryan remembers the Pub's fallen state in bemused tones, at once commiserating about the condition of the bar and the neighborhood while admitting that the weariness had a certain charm. After all, the Pub was the backdrop to his decision to come to Columbia.
"It's [the Pub] where I was first taken as a football recruit. The beer was cheap, and you'd go with friends," Ryan explains.
While people living in the neighborhood of Ryan's undergraduate years contended with serious challenges, such as economic turmoil and crime, the 1980s comprised a time of transition for the community and the bar.
Eventually, however, the Pub closed in 1985 after 47 years of service to the Columbia community.
Columbia Daily Spectator Archives
Seemingly, the most obvious culprit in the demise of the Pub in its original form was New York state increasing the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1985. "This effectively cuts off 75 percent of the undergraduate population," Duncan Bond-Nelson, director of Dining Services at the time, commented in a 1985 Spectator article.
Yet even before the law made such a dramatic cut in the Pub's population of potential undergraduate customers, it was facing bankruptcy. The financial and legal tests facing the bar were such that Ryan called its closure "a foregone conclusion."
The Pub's customer base was also threatened by a second campus drinking establishment, the 'Plex. Located where Lerner Hall is now, the 'Plex was more modern and welcoming than its competition in John Jay's basement.
"It had a proper dance floor, stage, DJ booth, lights and then a separate room with full bar and food," John Sun, who graduated from Columbia College in 1987, writes in an email. Students of drinking age were enticed by the decor and atmosphere. "The bar area was brighter, more modern looking than the Pub."
Adding to the 'Plex's advantage was Columbia's decision to begin accepting female students two years earlier, in 1983. While the occasional Barnard date would visit the Pub, its original proponents in 1939 could have never anticipated the advent of a suddenly doubled consumer base. The dark, cramped space began losing its charm when crowded.
Though it seemed that the 'Plex's open and modern space would make it the new campus staple for years to come, even this dining hall's reign was relatively short lived. The 'Plex became the victim of the reversal of the trends that had doomed the Pub—changes in the surrounding community began putting into question the role of overall on-campus drinking
By the 1990s, New York City was beginning to recover from its earlier pangs and, by extension, so were both Morningside Heights and Columbia.
"Because of how much better, safer, and probably gentrified New York and Morningside Heights has gotten, Columbia has gone from one of the easiest Ivy Leagues to get into one of the most difficult. … You can walk from 96th to 116th [streets] and think, this is all nice," Ryan says.
"Across the street from Broadway now is Bernheim and Schwartz, which is nice. Before that we had the West End, which was a dump."
The current popularity of bars on Broadway like Bernheim and Schwartz and The Heights Bar & Grill, established in 2015 and 1997, respectively, is a consequence and symbol of the sense of security that encourages students, faculty, and young professionals to eat and drink in Morningside Heights.
By the time Ferris Booth Hall had to be demolished to make room for Lerner Hall in 1996, temporarily shutting down the 'Plex, the demand for bars had already been outsourced to private enterprise outside of the Columbia campus.
Hanging on the wall of JJ's Place now is a picture of the old Pub. Though the photograph is of course in black and white, one can nevertheless sense the darkness Springer and Ryan talk about, and smell the sweet scent of sticky, beer-soaked wood. The environment of the modern dining hall, which started serving food in 1987, bears little similarity to its origins.
JJ's Place these days is well lit with a paneled floor, whose wooden planks are laminated and clean. The fast food-centric dining hall received a capital infusion from the University in 1996 when it became a popular campus eatery, and it was formally recognized as a dining hall in 2007.
With the smell of fried food coming from a friendly staff, there's a feeling of warmth exuded from JJ's Place. Its late hours on a Friday night surpass the 11 p.m. closing time of Springer's undergraduate years by two hours. The alcohol and live music have been replaced by Jamba Juice and Drake playlists, and these days, it's more likely you'll see students there preparing for a long night of studying than pregaming for a night out.