Athens on the Upper West Side: Stephanopoulos’ New Asylum

Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture & Development , by Andrew S. Dolkart. Columbia University Press, 505 pages, $50.

The upper Manhattan plateau that became New York’s “Acropolis” 100 years ago has experienced several incarnations. In the late 1800′s, New York Hospital deemed the then secluded terrain of Morningside Heights so “salubrious” that it located its mental asylum there. An impressive array of institutions supplanted the asylum with their own architectural landmarks: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; McKim, Mead & White’s Columbia University campus; Riverside Church and the Union and Jewish Theological seminaries. But by World War II, so many prostitutes lived amid these monuments to mind and spirit that parts of the neighborhood were declared off-limits to U.S. Navy midshipmen.

Now, in the late 1990′s, Andrew S. Dolkart writes in his new history of Morningside Heights, the decrepit acropolis is on the rebound. He sees a new spirit of architectural experimentation and neighborly cooperation under way at Columbia. The area now ranks among New York City’s “more desirable,” with co-op apartment prices at record levels and, as the book informs us in its final footnote, former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos now lives in the neighborhood.

Another footnote reveals that Mr. Dolkart, a professor at Columbia’s School of Architecture, has himself been advising the university on its latest master plan for the campus and environs. Yet readers would be wrong to suspect he has written a timely promotional tome-just as Columbia is in the midst of a $650 million building campaign and embarks on efforts to promote the Heights’ revitalization. The book provides a candid look at the university’s frequent fund-raising shortcomings, the history of anti- Semitism within its administration, the bitter conflicts with its disadvantaged Harlem neighbors and the mediocrity of many midcentury architectural additions to Charles Follen McKim’s original campus master plan.

Mr. Dolkart’s writing, at times more scholarly than vivid, further seeks to refocus attention on the neglected architectural merits of the area’s other academies like Teachers College, Barnard College and the seminaries, as well as to examine the surge of imposing private apartment-house construction after the opening of the Broadway subway line in 1904.

The institutions that migrated around the turn of the century to Morningside Heights, the western edge of Manhattan from 110th to 125th streets that straddles an eroded ancient mountain range, built their temples to faith and learning in highly disparate styles. This architectural diversity mirrors the often conflicting interests of their trustees who drew upon the same pool of wealthy New Yorkers for financial support. Mr. Dolkart ably chronicles how largesse from names like Rockefeller, Warburg, Loeb, Schiff and Vanderbilt involved periodic conflict and intrigue.

John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s gift of more than $8 million to create Riverside Church came only after the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine spurned the Baptist philanthropist’s request for an appointment to its board of trustees upon making a $500,000 donation. In 1926, financier Jacob Schiff’s name was posthumously stripped from the Corinthian-columned Students’ Hall he helped erect at Barnard. Schiff’s family, humiliated by the move, protested in vain that the college was “unwilling to place upon one of its buildings the name of a Jew.” In a later era of increased tolerance, the Jewish Theological Seminary more justifiably removed the name of Ivan F. Boesky from its 1985 library addition after Mr. Boesky was convicted of embezzlement.

The transformation of Morningside Heights from a rural neighborhood into a focal point of the city’s spiritual and intellectual life began with the Episcopalian Church’s bid to erect a home-grown medieval cathedral in the New World. The cornerstone was laid in 1892 but a series of setbacks, from a badly managed architectural competition to protracted fund-raising difficulties, have thwarted completion of the colossus to this day. Personal disputes and changing tastes led to the scrapping of the initial Byzantine-Romanesque scheme, in the midst of construction, in favor of a neo-Gothic design by Ralph Adams Cram. More recently, a 1992 proposal to complete the south transept in Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s brilliant modern interpretation of Gothic forms has been abandoned for lack of funds. St. John the Unfinished stands not just as a symbol of faith of many New Yorkers but of what Mr. Dolkart calls “the overreaching of those who planned such an enormous and inevitably impractical building project.”

Columbia became the second leading institution to move to Morningside Heights when it purchased a large part of the asylum property in 1892. It considered erecting a neo-Gothic campus that would have ended up in harmony with the nearby cathedral, but eschewed this popular collegiate style to set itself apart from rival universities. To this end, Columbia chose the country’s premier firm of McKim, Mead & White for a design befitting its urban setting, a monumental ensemble focused on a classical library.

Mr. Dolkart rightly hails the result as “one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring progressions of architectural spaces in America.” But he does not shy away from condemning several banal later additions to the campus. While Harvard and Yale were commissioning architects like Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen and Gordon Bunshaft to embellish their premises, Columbia hired far lesser talents to follow in the footsteps of the Beaux-Arts-trained master Charles Follen McKim. Mr. Dolkart’s willingness to criticize his university’s past contrasts with his more equivocal description of a clumsy esthetic misstep currently nearing completion-Bernard Tschumi’s jazzy new Columbia student center. Its “deconstructivist” facade, featuring off-kilter ramps encased by glass, is entirely ill-suited to the site.

Institutions of higher learning have long used fashionable architecture as a way to advertise themselves to their constituencies and society at large. In this vein, the Jewish Theological Seminary selected an American Colonial design for its complex along Broadway at 122nd Street. The choice might seem incongruous, but Mr. Dolkart outlines how, in the 1920′s, assimilated U.S. Jews favored a colonial revivalist style as a means of visually affirming allegiance to American values.

The seminary and other Morningside Heights institutions have historically had vexed relations with nearby residents, particularly after the Depression sharply altered the population of an area that once boasted some of the city’s finest private apartment houses. Buildings whose developers once ran advertisements touting liveried staff at residents’ “slightest beck and call” became run-down single-room-occupancy hotels. Worried that potential students would be frightened off by encroaching poverty and social ills, Columbia united with the other schools to help erect the Morningside Gardens apartment complex at the neighborhood’s northern end in 1957. In the 1960′s, the university purchased more than 100 buildings to stabilize the deterioration and secure more student and faculty housing.

Mr. Dolkart notes that while these institutions viewed the SRO’s as a blight because their tenants included alcoholics, drug addicts and prostitutes, many law-abiding poor people also lived in them. Columbia’s campaign to evict these tenants brought charges that the university was seeking to drive blacks and Puerto Ricans out of its vicinity, and tensions reached a peak in 1968 when student and community demonstrations forced Columbia to abandon a planned gymnasium project in the city-owned Morningside Park that would have provided only limited access for unaffiliated residents.

The tumult eventually subsided, but town-gown strains have not fully evaporated. Under its latest president, George Rupp, Columbia is seeking to enhance the dreary stretch of upper Broadway with fresh commercial tenants in property it owns in and around that thoroughfare. The turnover has had mixed results, with the arrival of national brand-name chains creating a bland, if neater, streetscape. However, the university’s two-year-old lease to Labyrinth Books, now New York’s most interesting bookstore, provides a promising example of how innovative cooperative endeavors can greatly add to Morningside Heights’ allure. As a new era of change gently rattles the staid campus gates, Mr. Dolkart’s thorough analysis of this architecturally rich neighborhood throws a welcome spotlight on what’s at stake.