Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Schermerhorn Hall Past & Present

It isn't surprising, really, that people have a tendency to ignore the changes that have happened in the spaces closest to them - physical objects have a way of asserting themselves as so concrete that it's easy to forget that their permanence is just an illusion.  I realized that after learning so much about the landscape of Columbia University and the surrounding areas over the course of the semester that I knew very little about the part of Columbia that I've spent the most time in - Schermerhorn Hall.  As I delved into the archives related to this building, the home of the anthropology department (and many others) since it was built, I uncovered a surprisingly shifting past, full of change and innovation almost from the start.

Schermerhorn Hall came into being in 1895, as the result of a donation from William C. Schermerhorn, chairman of the university's Board of Trustees at the time.  Descended from the city's original Dutch settlers who eventually became shipping tycoons, Mr. Schermerhorn was a Columbia College alumni (class of 1840) who also served on the boards of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The building was designed by the firm of McKim, Mead, & White, the same architects of Low Library and many other campus buildings, and construction began on the foundation and lower levels later that year, with the official dedication and cornerstone ceremony being held on May 2, 1896, presided over by President Low, with Mr. Schermerhorn and many others in attendance (picture below).

Construction progressed rapidly over the course of that year and the building was ready for use by the beginning of the fall semester of 1897.  As can be seen in one of the pictures, Fayerweather Hall was built simultaneously right next door, the original home of the Pupin Physics Laboratory, which later moved into its own building.  Dedicated for the use of the "natural sciences," Schermerhorn Hall played host to many departments in its early years (many of which no longer exist), including anthropolgy, zoology, botany, mineralogy, geology, and biology.  The original ground floor entrance hall, which included a sweeping staircase and open vestibule (seen below), existed until the main building's first major renovation in 1946.

 The lower levels were primarily devoted to museum and lab space for the geology and mineralogy departments while the remaining departments competed for space in the floors above.  The crowding became so acute over the ensuing decades that the university was forced to add the Schermerhorn Extension, funded by a $1 million donation from the original Mr. Schermerhorn's nephew, F. August Schermerhorn (class of 1868).  The building was also designed by McKim, Mead, & White, and was complete by the beginning of Fall 1929.  As can be seen in the original plans below, even the simple floorplan of the extension has been adapted over time.  963 Schermerhorn, the present location of our classroom, was then 962, which included two storage closets and a door into an adjoining lab.
Even with the addition of the Extension, complaints of crowding in Schermerhorn continued unabated over most of the 20th century.  Beginning in 1940, crowding in the main building was exacerbated by the takeover of the 200 and 300 levels by the university to give Enrico Fermi and his team more lab space to work on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb.  The federal government gave Columbia $900,000 in 1946 to restore those two floors, which the university also used to demolish the original central staircases in favor of an elevator.  Below we can see an evolution of the building's exterior in pictures, which changed quite dramatically in 1912 with the additional of the Avery Library.
 A lighthearted, but telling, New York Times story from 1948 illustrated the crowding, telling of a mishap in Schermerhorn in which about two dozen of the biology department's frogs escaped from their tanks and took up residence in the adjoining psychology department library.  In 1969, quite a scandal ensued after three department chairmen (psychology, art history, and geology) all resigned in protest of Schermerhorn's overcrowded conditions after complaints of the severe overcrowding continued to go unaddressed by the university.  According to the article, the art history department at that time was squeezing five individuals to an office for lack of space.  Eventually, as departments dissolved or moved into new buildings of their own, the issue of overcrowding lessened.  Though it is one of the campus' original 19th century structures, Schermerhorn Hall has certainly adapted and grown with the years, leading me to wonder what the future holds for this venerable old building.


Emma said...

This was so interesting, Clayton! We've mostly been thinking of the campus as a whole rather than focusing in on specific parts of it, so it's cool to learn the architectural and social history of one building.

Raj said...

The last shot is especially intersting; I think it captures the sense in which the surrounding space is completely different from the way it is now.

gec2112 said...

Really interesting post, Clayton! I have always founds it interesting that when we walk in the front of the Schermerhorn building, we are confronted by an awkward elevator rather than a grand staircase. I didn't know it was because the actual grand staircase is two floors below, though I think I did stumble upon an area that looked more vestibule like a couple of years ago when I took the stair too many flights down....

Mariko Yoshida said...

This post is in fact really intriguing, Clayton. It seems that the personnel flow around the building at that time was slightly different to the present time. As we can see from the second last photograph, the iron gate right front of the building used to stand out more symbolically, and I think most of us nowadays rarely look at the full-frontal view of the building when we walk in. It would also be interesting to analyze how the Columbia landscape has been understood and perceived by users, by looking at the transformation of personnel flow.

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