Spot the Differences: Columbia University campus view from 1903

Low Library Postcard, 1903
View of Low Library in 1903

Becky Chapin from the Geneva Historical Society recently shared this postcard with the University Archives. The postcard features a great shot of a very early Low Library and the Morningside campus. It also includes University President Nicholas Murray Butler’s signature and date, May 23, 1903. Look very carefully at the picture and see how many of the following differences you can find.

  • Look in front of Low Library, as the steps climb higher and higher towards the colonnade . . . Is anything missing? Or more to the point, is anyone missing? In the middle set of steps, you will see an empty platform. Alma is not there yet. Daniel Chester French’s Alma Mater was unveiled to the public on September 23, 1903, the first day of classes for the new school year.
  • Also in Low Plaza, if you look closely, you will see that the fountains in front of Low Library are still under construction, only the bottom basins are in place. The McKim, Mead and White-designed fountains were completed in 1907.
  • Great view of the Hudson River, right? You know what else is missing or helping with the unobstructed views? There is no Riverside Church, which was completed in 1930
  • See the building in the lower right corner? You may know it as Buell Hall now, but the building was originally called Macy Villa and was a residence when it was part of the Bloomingdale Asylum. In fact, as the only Bloomingdale Asylum building still standing, it is the oldest building on campus. Back when the postcard photograph was taken, it was named College Hall and it was where the Columbia College Dean had his office and some college classes were held. If you compare it with Buell Hall now, you will notice that the building has lost the lovely porch in the photograph and that it seems a bit out of place. That is because in 1905 the building was moved from its original location on 116th Street (as seen here), up the hill and next to Low Library, in order to make room for Kent Hall, the original home of the Law School. College Hall was literally picked up and moved. Once in its new site, it was known as East Hall because it was directly east of Low Library.
  • There is another relic from the Bloomingdale Asylum days on this photograph of campus. On the far left side of the image, there is a small building (looks like a house), which was called, predictably, West Hall. On the top floor of West Hall lived Jared Spencer, the College Gardener. “Old Man” Spencer had been tending the property since the Bloomingdale Asylum days and he was famous for referring to the faculty, students and alums as “the inmates.” West Hall housed the Department of Anthropology, the University Bookstore, student publication offices and, at one point, a barber shop. The building was razed in the summer of 1913.

Bonus trivia: Nicholas Murray Butler became Acting University President in 1901, when Seth Low resigned to serve as Mayor of the City of New York in 1902. (Low had previously served as Mayor of Brooklyn from 1881 to 1885). Therefore, in May 1903, Butler was just about to finish his first full year as University President.

-Columbia University Archives Staff