Inside Low Library: the Offices of the Presidents

On the Morningside campus, Low Library has always been the home of Columbia University Presidents but the office space has changed over the years. The Office of the President is currently listed as 202 Low Library. This suite of offices includes room 201, on the southwest corner, which is currently President Lee Bollinger’s office. However, when the Library of Columbia University opened in 1897, room 201 was actually the office of the University Librarian.

The First Office

President Nicholas Murray Butler’s Office. Scan #0336. Historical Photograph Collection. University Archives.

In 1897, the new Morningside campus was centered around the Library building. The building included a room for the Trustees (room 212) and a President’s Room (room 213). This President’s Room was a public or ceremonial office. Here, for example, President Seth Low and University Secretary William H.H. Beebe would regularly hold office hours. Low and Beebe had working offices above these spaces. Low sat at 307 (now 311) Low Library, above the Trustees Room, and he was easily connected via a walkway to 308 (now 313) Low Library, which was Beebe’s workspace, above the public President’s Room.

The Second Office

In 1901, when Seth Low resigned to become Mayor of the City of New York (and Beebe would resign soon after), Acting President Nicholas Murray Butler took over Beebe’s office (308 Library) and Low’s office (307 Library) became the Library’s Bibliographic Museum, which held displays of the rare books, manuscripts and maps. 

In 1935, most of the Library collections moved to the new South Hall (now known as Butler Library). While the old building was (and still is) identified on the front as the “Library of Columbia University,” it was during this move that Butler renamed the building as the Seth Low Memorial Library. Butler remained in the same office at 308 Library, which after the move was renumbered and became 313 Low, for the duration of his term (1902-1945) and beyond. Even when Frank D. Fackenthal served as Acting President (1945-1948), there was a partition installed in the space because Butler would still come in every day around 2:00 pm to “work” in his office. Fackenthal would then use a smaller desk on the other side of the partition in the afternoons. 

The Third Office

President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his desk in Low Library. Scan #0513. Historical Photograph Collection. University Archives

At the end of the Butler era, a new space was chosen for the new president – General Dwight David Eisenhower.  The University needed to provide Eisenhower with a larger suite to accommodate his presidential assistants and secretaries. Additionally, as a way to ease the transition, the Provost’s Office became interconnected with the President’s Office so all were now along the west wing of Low Library. In June 1948 Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first University President to occupy that current suite of offices on the second floor. Since then University Presidents have all shared the same space, 201 Low, in various configurations. 

President Michael I. Sovern at his desk in Low Library with a view of Butler Library. Scan #1027. Historical Photograph Collection. University Archives

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