Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Columbia and Union Theological Seminary

As a graduate of a divinity school, I am fascinated by the relationship that theological institutions have with the larger universities with which they are often associated. With this interest in mind, I sought to examine the history of Union Theological Seminary, with a special emphasis on its relationship with Columbia. What I found was that the Seminary, at the time of its relocation to Morningside Heights in the early 20th century, simultaneously became part of the larger university community while distinguishing itself as an independent entity in various ways. This dual character is embodied by the location of the space and its architectural style.

(Union Theological Seminary, Park Ave. Campus, 1884)

In 1884, a new campus was constructed at 700 Park Avenue to house the seminary; after only 20 years, the campus was deemed inadequate for various reasons, and plans for the construction of a new campus were drawn up. This relocation was made possible in large part by a donation of 1.6 million dollars made by the vice president of the board of trustees, and construction commenced in 1908.

(The Seminary Under Construction)

In a paper, written in 1986, entitled “Union,” Mirande E. Dupuy details the circumstances and process of this construction. She notes that according to the initial design requirements of the Building and Site Committee, the site was to be conceived as a space “of Instruction and Administration, of Worship and Residence” and as “an institution of higher learning made distinctive by religious rather than purely academic motive.” Additionally, the committee called for the proposed site to be architecturally consonant with surrounding academic institutions (ie Barnard, Columbia and the Teacher’s College) “so as to promote a harmonious ensemble.” At the same time, the campus was to “have such individuality of treatment as to make evident [its] organic distinctiveness and peculiar character.” This tension – between its simultaneous inclusion in the university community and distinctiveness from it – manifested itself in other ways as well.

According to a timeline on the Union Theological Seminary Website, in March 1903, the seminary trustees received a letter from the trustees of Columbia which expressed “their great satisfaction that the Seminary had secured a site near the University grounds” and which offered “the literary advantages of our college to the Seminary students.” On the other hand, as Dupuy notes, in an article in the New York Times which appeared in 1905, the president of the seminary, Charles Cuthbert Hall, “was emphatic in his statement that the identities of the institutions would not change” and that the seminary “would not relinquish its ‘corporate independence.’” The quote is a telling one, as it suggests that Hall found it necessary to affirm the seminary’s autonomy from Columbia University, the status of which might have been seen as vulnerable given the location of the new site.

The firm chosen to design the new campus was Allen and Collins; their design reflects the manner in which the UTS campus is visually distinct from that of Columbia. Dupuy points out that the plan was influenced by the prevalence of the “High Gothic Revival” in architecture during the early 20th century. This revival was perhaps inaugurated by the church architect Ralph Adams Cram (who, incidentally, designed St. John the Divine). She goes on to describe the movement as being defined by “a need to return to the monastic intensity of purposeful learning as there had been in the quadrangles of the medieval colleges.” The Union campus was directly influenced by the Cambridge University. The campus, closed off in a separate quadrangle, with its very different architectural style as compared to McKim, Mead and White’s Columbia, thus accomplished the task of distinguishing the space stylistically and spatially from other parts of campus. Perhaps the choice of this specific style, popularized by a church architect, was particularly conducive to the role of UTS as a religious and an academic space.

It is interesting to note that the Seminary quadrangle today is not as closed off from the rest of the Columbia Campus as it was once. 80 Claremont Ave., at its southwest end, houses the University's Religion department; Knox Hall, at its northwest end, houses the departments of Sociology and Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. Reflecting on the relationship between Union and Columbia, one in which these two institutions are interdependent yet distinct, leads me to wonder how the University has related to the other educational institutions in Morningside Heights.

(Dupuy paper courtesy of Columbia University Archives, Buildings and Grounds Collection; Images Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery)

-Jay Ramesh

1 comment:

Emma said...

This is so interesting! I didn't know anything about the history of UTS, but I like to study in the library because the space is gorgeous. The library is linked to the Columbia system, just like Lehman, Law, Avery, Barnard, etc. I wonder if Columbia's original offer of book sharing was intended to be reciprocal or if UTS was subsumed into the University at a later date.