President Bollinger stated in his fall term update that while the surges of the pandemic continue, we “must drastically scale back the number of students we can accommodate in residence on campus.” Columbia has not always been a residential college and, in fact, one of Bollinger’s predecessors believed strongly in students staying at home.
When Columbia’s first building, the aptly named College Hall, opened in 1760 on Murray and Barclay Streets, west of Broadway, students began to “lodge and diet in the College.” But this would not be the case for long. During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied the City and turned College Hall into barracks. After almost ten years of war uses, the building was in poor condition and while the College seems to have offered some lodging after the War, it was very limited. According to Clement Clarke Moore, in 1787, out of 39 students, only “five lodged and boarded in the College and five occupied rooms and studied there.” By 1800, the College Hall was used only for curricular purposes. Columbia would not offer its students lodging again until 1906, when Hartley Hall opened on the Morningside campus. That’s over 100 years without any sort of residential life.
While this might seem hard to believe, in the 1840s, Nathaniel Fish Moore, an alum and College President among many other roles, felt that the lack of dorms and, for some, the long commuting distance was actually beneficial to students. This arrangement of living at home left “students to the comfort, the security, and the salutary influence of their home” and this “unites parental discipline and supervision with that which the college exercises.” (Moore, 103)
In fact, Moore did not think much of those parents who sent their children to live in college dormitories:
A father who finds his son difficult to manage, is easily persuaded to send him abroad for his education; and, willingly to flatter himself that all is going well, so long as he neither sees nor hears anything to the contrary, he quiets his conscience by this endeavor to devolve on others the great responsibility that he ought to bear, or at least to share himself. (Moore, 103-104)
And to close his argument on this perceived criticism of his beloved College:
We think it therefore an inestimable advantage attending the system here adopted, that youth may obtain a collegiate education without a separation from their natural friends, or any check to the expansion of those virtues and affections which are the peculiar growth of the domestic circle—of the family—which, with all its sympathies of relationship and society, is the natural situation for the young. (Moore, 104-105)
This was 1846, when student enrollment at Columbia was only about 125 students. In just 30 years, the College enrollment would be close to 1,400 students and President Barnard started the campaign to persuade the Trustees of the great need of lodging for students. Columbians would have to wait until 1906 for that very first dorm, Hartley Hall. And it wasn’t until 1988, when Schapiro Hall opened, that the University was able to guarantee four years of housing to every College and SEAS student.
Foss, Michael CC 2003. “Home on the Heights. 100 Years of Housing at Columbia,” Columbia College Today, Volume 32, September 2005, 14-25.
Howe, Herbert B. “The Resident Student at Columbia,” Columbia University Quarterly, Volume 24, 1932, 311-356.
Moore, Nathaniel Fish CC 1802. A Historical Sketch of Columbia College. New York, Printed for Columbia College, 1846.