Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Revson Plaza and Columbia's expansions

With Campus level above and traffic below it we will have a separation of academic and commercial life and provide students with a rural atmosphere in a great metropolis. (...) We are most fortunate at Columbia. The topography of the Morningside Heights area makes this unusual plaza development feasible, in an area where the land is level, such a project would be impossible.  -- William C. Warren, Dean of the Columbia Law School, at the opening of Revson Plaza on November 23, 1965.
In this post, I follow up on my earlier post about the views from Columbia's Campus. There, I wrote about the ways "the city" erases and plays with differences in elevation. However much may be learned from simply experiencing the landscape, there are certain things about which it is silent. How did people speak about this place in the past? What were their intentions? How did they speak about their experiences? The landscape may speak in many senses and with many of the senses, but usually speech is not among them. And so, here I want to dig into some historical voices, voices from the archive speaking about one of the places I encountered naively in my earlier post: Revson Plaza.

Warren's quote struck me as particularly interesting. Something is off, but what is going on? My first impression was one of a naive erasure of history, of the past choices of the trustees of the university, an erasure of what may be called sedimented human agency. Warren speaks as if "Columbia University in the City of New York" has never been located anywhere else in this city, or indeed as if it couldn't be anywhere else but on top of a hill in New York City. How fortunate is Columbia! This site, after all, was chosen very consciously and in line with a politics of space that Warren is merely reformulating: like the Christians who say they are in the world (saeculum) but not of the world, Columbia University is in the city, but not of the city.

But what is Revson Plaza? My earlier blog post here should give a first impression of the physical space. A quick scan of the recent archives of online Campus publication (an undergradute puvlication) reveals that Revson Plaza is rather peripheral to the daily experience of Campus space for most undergraduates (or for that matter: likely most non-Law School, non-SIPA, and non-East Campus dwelling students). At Bwog, the official name Revson Plaza is usually followed with a clarification along the lines of "the elevated walkway over Amsterdam Avenue" (here) or "an overpass above Amsterdam Avenue" (here). (Columbia Spectator's supposedly more established readership needs no such clarification). Furthermore, the Columbia University Archives' "Buildings and Grounds" section informs us that the plaza was dedicated in November 1965 after many years of delays due to construction errors and difficulties in meeting city demands. Indeed, the plaza had been first announced in 1956, after the university acquired the entire "superblock" between West 116th-118th Street, Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive and the bridge had originally been  slated to open at the same time as the new Law School building (Greene Hall opened in 1961).

Mock up of the East Campus plan with an impression of Revson Plaza, New York Herald Tribune, March 28, 1956.
This expansion was momentous in the architectural history of Columbia's Morningside Campus, as for the first time the original campus' architects were no longer involved, having been replaced by Wallace Harrison and Max Abramovitz. It should be noted that McKim, Mead, and White & Co had spearheaded Columbia's eastward proto-expanion, advising, for instance, the architects of the Casa Italiana in the 1920's. At the same time, the university was dealing with the problems of expanding
its campus in an expanding city. Public streets became an annoyance, an intrusion of the world into "rural" idylle that was Columbia's Campus. First of all, in 1953 the city ceded 116th Street to the university in anticipation of the University's bicentennial. However, since 116th Street was not much of a thoroughfare (traffic is blocked within a block from Campus by Riverside Park and Morningside Park, this was an easy gesture from the city (reflected in the university paying a nominal sum of $1,000 for the street section). However, this was not an option with regard to Revson Plaza: the city was not going to give up Amsterdam Avenue, which is a major thoroughfare. And so was born Revson Plaza: "a little vision of a future big city", in the words of architect Harrison, quoted in the Herald Tribune of March 28, 1956.

In light of the current squabbles over the university's expansions, it is interesting to note the similarities in language. The same Herald Tribune piece quoted before notes that:
A great transformation is taking place at Columbia. And it reaches beyond the university itself. For the entire Morningside Heights area, which a few years ago was turning shabby and even dangerous, is involved in the regeneration. --New York Herald Tribune, March 28, 1956
The neighbourhood is turning bad and Columbia will revitalize it. And just as today, protests were quick to follow back then. It is perhaps no coincidence that the famous riots on campus of 1968 were in reaction to the University's continued expansion.

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