Continuous History: the Trustees Room of Low Library

Trustees Room, Low Memorial Library, 1930s. Scan 0335. Historical Photographs Collection, University Archives.

Visitors to campus are understandably confused that the building engraved with the designation of “The Library of Columbia University” is not actually a library. The last library collection housed at Low, the Columbiana Collection and University Archives, moved out and into the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2007. Over the years most of the spaces in Low Library have changed occupants and even usage, but one space has remained constant. From opening day on October 4, 1897, the first room on the right of the main entrance has always been the Trustees Room.

Low Library was the first building on the Morningside campus designed and constructed for Columbia. A library makes for a fitting monument for the intellectual aspirations of the recently renamed University, formerly Columbia College. But from the very beginning, Low Library was also the home of the main administrative offices. Entering the building, you are greeted by the helmeted bust of Pallas Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, a copy of the Louvre’s Minerve du Collier. Athena stands between two rooms: the Trustees Room to the right and, originally, the President’s Room to the left (now the Visitors Center).

The Trustees Room was designated and still serves as a conference room for the meetings of the Board. The room is elegantly decorated with wood paneling from floor to ceiling. The ceiling itself is decorated with engraved panels and rosettes, unlike the rest of the more restrained, simply decorated building. The large table is surrounded by chairs for the 24 members of the Board, including the President of the University: the same number in 1897 as in 2020

In addition to maintaining its role, the Room also holds two items which connect the Morningside campus to the original Park Place campus. In the fireplace on the northeast corner of the Room, there is a solid block of red sandstone with an inscription in Latin. This is the original cornerstone of College Hall, the home of King’s College, laid in 1756. The stone has moved twice: once in 1857 to the east wall of the college chapel on 49th Street and Madison Avenue, and again in 1896, to Low Library. The other noteworthy item is the iron crown at the top of the fireplace. This is also from the original college building but its survival is even more surprising since so few royal emblems escaped destruction after the American Revolution. The Trustees Room is open to visitors when there are no meetings scheduled (and when the campus is open).  So if you see an open door, please feel free to walk in and take a look around to a monument of Columbia’s continuity and history.