As Columbia University nears 125 years in Morningside Heights, we look to the one building left on campus from the days of the Bloomingdale Asylum: Buell Hall. Here we offer a timeline in the long history of this small, free-standing, red-brick cottage in the middle of campus.
In 1886, William Macy, Treasurer of the Society of New York Hospital, donated $25,000 for the construction of a special building to provide elegant quarters for patients at the Bloomingdale Asylum. The original plans show a generously-sized dining room, a billiards room, and comfortable rooms for twelve patients.
After Columbia took over the site, Macy Villa became “College Hall” since it was the home of the Dean of the College. In fact, College Hall was the site for the Greek entrance examinations in September 1897, right before classes started on the new campus in October 1897. However, Dean J. Howard Van Amringe did not think much of the College’s new accommodations. In a 1898 letter to the student newspaper the Spectator, Van Am was candid:
The site on Morningside Heights is the most beautiful on the Island of Manhattan; it is adorned with splendid buildings devoted to engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, and kindred scientific departments, with an unrivalled edifice for the university library, approached through a magnificent and costly entrance court, and yet “College Hall” is an old and small brick dwelling house, conspicuous by its insignificance and suggestive of indifference or disdain. This is not dignified, it is not worthy of the College, its history, its reputation, its present high state of efficiency. It is a reproach that should be speedily removed.
In October 1905, the small cottage was moved to make room for the construction of Kent Hall (new home for the Law School) and Hamilton Hall (new home for the College). Yes, the building was literally picked up and moved up the hill, closer to Low Library. In the process, the house lost its basement and the lovely wraparound porch. Once in its new (and current location), the cottage became “East Hall” as it stood east of Low Library. For campus historians, this relocation provides an easy way to date early campus photographs: if the house is on 116th Street, the photo is from before 1905 (see colorized postcard above).
The original Columbia School of Library Economy operated briefly on the 49th Street campus from 1887 to 1889 before the School moved to Albany and became the New York State Library School. In 1926, the Albany School and the New York Public Library School merged to become the new Columbia School of Library Service. Because of its proximity to the Library, East Hall became the School’s first home on Morningside.
When Butler Library (then South Hall) opened as the new campus library and home to the School of Library Service, the Alumni Federation moved in. These were the headquarters for the alumni publication, Columbia Alumni News, and the center for all alumni-related activities. The second floor was occupied by the Appointments Office and the Residence Bureau. After a Trustee vote, the building was renamed “Alumni House” and the growing ivy gave it a whole new look.
After the alumni, then came the School of General Studies. Started in 1947, GS found its first dedicated home in the recently renamed “East Hall” in 1956.
After the renovation of the much larger Lewisohn Hall for GS, the adaptable cottage became a home to the over 1,500 international students on campus as the Foreign Student Center. According to Director John A. B. Faggi, “the idea was to provide an actual home, with personal charm and warmth, in a city environment that can be very impersonal.”
In keeping with the international theme, after the Foreign Student Center, the Maison Française moved in. The Maison remains on the second floor to this day.
In its latest reimagining, the little house became the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture with its gallery space opening in 1990. The Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, however, will remain closed during Fall 2021.
Call it Macy Villa, College Hall, East Hall, Alumni House, East Hall (again), and now Buell Hall, this little house has been a versatile home to many for a very long time.