The Second Life of the Low Library Furniture

After the opening of South Hall (now known as Butler Library), Low Library was no longer the main library on campus. The reading room in the Rotunda was dismantled and the space was transformed into ceremonial space or used as a lecture hall, a function it serves to this day. But what happened to the McKim, Mead and White library furniture? Whatever happened to those beautiful custom-built round tables and bookshelves? 


Low Library Reading Room. Scan #0349. Historical Photograph Collection. University Archives.

To learn about the fate of the reading room furniture, meet Dixon Ryan Fox. This alum (AB 1911, AM 1912, PhD 1917) became an American history professor at Columbia. Many thought that the academic and well-known Fox was the most likely successor to University President Nicholas Murray Butler. However, Butler, already in his early 70s and having served as president for over 30 years, had no plans to retire. And so, in 1934, Fox left Columbia to become President of Union College. He was soon invited back to campus to receive an honorary degree at the 1935 Commencement. During his return visit to the new ceremonial space in Low Library, Fox found the old reading room furniture stored in the basement. The new college president knew that Union College had its own iconic, round library Nott Memorial and so he asked Butler if he could have the McKim, Mead and White library furniture. With the Columbia Trustees’ consent, the furniture was given on loan to Union. After their first 30 years at Columbia, the Rotunda desks served Union College’s Nott Memorial library goers for another 30 years. 


Our colleagues at the Union College’s Special Collections and Archives generously shared the following images of the Nott Memorial reading room.

Nott Memorial Library reading room, undated. Courtesy of Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College.






Nott Memorial Library reading room, 1936. Courtesy of Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College.