Low Library as an Athletics Training Facility?

Crew team rowing practice, Low Library, 1952. (Scan #0766) Historical Photograph Collection. Box 141, Folder 26. University Archives

Low Library has been a library, a home for the administration and a ceremonial space for events, but did you know that it was once the home to the crew team’s rowing tanks? Deep in the sub basement, the crew team used to practice in Low while the Harlem River was frozen.  

In January 1934 rowing tanks were installed on the tennis courts in front of Furnald Hall. Rowing tanks are made up of a wooden frame, with a canvas-lined water container or “tank” that holds about 2 feet of water, and 10 rowing seats built into the apparatus. With the Furnald tank, the crew team had its own facility (no longer sharing the pool with the swimming team) and, being outside, they could enjoy the fresh air. Unfortunately, this setup proved less than ideal. The fresh air was really cold in the winter months and no matter how much salt was added to the tanks, the water sometimes froze. Also, with all the overflowing water from the tank, the tennis courts turned to mud. The crew team needed another option.

The following year (1935) the crew team was presented with yet another new practice facility—this time in the sub basement of Low Library. The space had been previously occupied by a ventilation plant which was no longer in use. As such, the space had very low ceilings with multiple steam pipes overhead. The steam pipes, which would sometimes burst, made the space very warm and humid. It was also not the easiest place to find: enter the building at the south entrance, down the stairs, turn left and then down a spiral staircase and almost into the tank. In this photograph, which appeared in the Columbia Alumni News in April 1952, you can see the tank, the hovering coach who is also navigating the pipes above, the very warm rowers and the spiral staircase in the back to reach the training room. 

Over the years, new tanks were installed and repaired and, perhaps surprisingly, the Columbia crew team continued to practice in the same hidden and humid space deep beneath Low Library through the 1990s.