The success of New York City as one of the leading world economic, cultural, and governmental centres could be attributed to a number of things including the location and geography of its harbour, the influx of immigrants hungry for opportunities and possible prosperity, the favourable outcome of major political events in the last couple of centuries. To me, however, New York’s prosperity is marked by its forward thinking. The infamous grid was set up in the early nineteenth century covering almost the entire island of Manhattan north of the contemporary city limits. For more than a century the markers on corners of planned streets stood solitary outside the growing city waiting for their time to play. And eventually the city grew so much that the grid needed further expansion into Inwood. Central Park was initially planned with the grid in 1811 and it still was not quite central in 1857 when it opened, but its designers envisioned its eventual centrality within the city. Times Square, another NYC icon, represents yet another leap of faith into the future. The New York Times built their impressive new headquarters there in 1904, which was the second tallest building in New York at the time, far away from Park Row, where all the other major newspaper headquarters and skyscrapers resided. And while the New York Herald, Tribune and World are all gone (together with their skyscrapers), the Times is the largest local newspaper in the country. At the same time when the Times moved to Midtown far from the centre of things, around the turn of the century, Columbia University moved Uptown to its current main campus in search for more space, and the first underground rapid transit system opened serving the full length of Manhattan and Bronx.
|Columbia University Morningside Height Campus in 1910|
When Columbia moved to Morningside Heights in 1897, the new campus did not have the urban feeling that it does today. The Dakota Apartments, some 40 streets south of campus, were so named because of their remoteness from the city. However, the remoteness of the new Columbia campus was alleviated substantially quite soon as in 1901 the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), which was one of the three companies initially operating the NYC subway system and which merged in the 1950s into the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), started the construction of it West Side line. On October 27, 1904 the first underground subway line in New York opened from Times Square to 145th St with a stop on 116th and Broadway right in front of Columbia University. As can be seen on the photograph of 1910 here, the campus was still pretty much alone on top of the hill. It could still look down upon the city, but it was now also connected to it.
|Three Miles of Broadway - Columbia University, 116th St, the IRT Station and Streetcars|
Columbia was also serviced by the now defunct Broadway and Amsterdam Ave. streetcar line operated by New York Railways, as can be seen in this photograph in 1911. However, the streetcars did not live the long life of the subway and in 1936 they were replaced by buses. The streetcar line seen in the picture is now serviced by the M7 bus. One could only wonder why this not so densely populated area needed two types of transport and moreover why the IRT invested both time and money in the creation of the underground. The process was especially cumbersome and included many difficulties along the way with one of the big challenges of the project being the support of the Columbus Monument (Skinner 1902).
|IRT West Line Construction 1901|
|IRT West Line Tunnel Construction at 118th St in 1902|
When the West Line opened in 1904, the 116th-Columbia was one of the very first underground stations in New York. Its entrance was through the middle of Broadway through an entry hall very similar to the one still remaining on 72nd St and the junction between Amsterdam Ave and Broadway. The entry hall was in used until 1967 when the current entrance stairways were built and the hall was demolished.
|The entry hall on 116th and Broadway still in use in March, 1967|
|Construction of the new entrance of 116th-Columbia station in September 1967|
The station today keeps serving the university just like it did more than a hundred years ago, but despite its obvious importance for the university’s link with the rest of the city, it is not usually thought of as a prominent part of the campus landscape. The station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. It has been a part of the campus for longer than Butler Library or the Law School and SIPA part of the campus. It joined the party just a year after Alma Mater, yet I do not think that it is ever included on campus tours, official or just the ones we give our friends when they visit. I wonder whether things would have been different, should the entry hall have stood…or whether it was different when it did? Is it the fact that it is underground and so not representing the Columbian idea of the “Acropolis of America” that makes us overlook it? Or is it that it is outside the gates and so not a part of the true campus? As it looks now, the station lacks monumentality; it even lacks any reminder of its historical significance. But it keeps getting the job done (as much as we want to and could complain about the 1-train) for more than a century now and while it is largely unnoticed, it is my reminder of that very essence of the New York spirit that made the IRT take the gamble and dig those tunnels that are proving so useful today when the city is actually dense all the way north into Manhattanville and beyond into the Bronx. And as the campus will expand north, it will still rely on that same leap of faith that was taken some hundred and ten years ago.
Frank W. Skinner,
1902 “Difficult Engineering in the Subway.” Century Magazine, Oct. 1902, pp. 908 – 911.
NYC Subway Web Site
1995 “IRT: The First Subway.” NYC Subway Web Site. http://www.nycsubway.org/irtsubway.html. [Accessed on April 24, 2012.]
Photo Credits: George Eastman House Collection, Michael V. Susi Collection, New York Transit Museum, Columbia University Archives