Remembering the College Tavern

As Columbia marks 125 years in Morningside Heights, we look back to the early days in the neighborhood, before the subway reached this part of the island and when Broadway was known as “The Boulevard” (and was still unpaved). Back “when everything was new and bare, Mike’s tavern furnished a cozy retreat.”

College Tavern (front) and Grant’s Tomb (back), circa 1898. Scan 1395. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

When the Columbia campus was on 49th Street and Madison Avenue, students would frequent the bar and billiard room in the basement of the fashionable Buckingham Hotel. The Buckingham was also on 49th Street, but between Fifth and Madison (see the full-page ad in this 1888 Spectator). Students could enjoy beer at ten cents a glass and a free lunch of fried oysters, crackers and cheese. When Columbia moved to Morningside Heights in October 1897, the Buckingham bartenders decided to follow the University uptown. According to Mike Coleman, “there were plenty of saloons in this new part of town, some cyclists’ resorts, and some vaudeville gardens, but there was no café where members of the university could meet or have a regular downtown lunch or spend the hours between lectures.” With the advice and assistance of a number of his Columbia customers, Coleman opened the College Tavern in March 1898.

The College Tavern was located on the west side of Broadway at about 121st Street (if the street had been cut), where the Union Theological Seminary now stands. The building itself was made up of parts. Coleman bought some materials from a colonial mansion that was being torn down on 104th Street and Columbus Avenue. Some of the front porch-facing windows came from a church in New Jersey. The Chicago Daily Tribune noted that even though it was recently built, “[t]he tavern looks as though it has stood since revolutionary days” but that “the atmosphere of the whole place is cozy and seemingly full of traditions already.” (April 14, 1898, p. 12).

In addition to the bar, the dining room and the pool tables upstairs, the College Tavern had meeting rooms and event spaces for the Kings Crown Club to meet, the Graduate Club to host “smokers” and even for Class Day lunches and alumni suppers. And, to maintain its rarified status, the Tavern advertised that it was for upperclassmen and professors only; freshmen were not admitted “unless accompanied by parents or guardian.” Freshmen would have to settle for the University Restaurant in West Hall.

The College Tavern, unfortunately, had a short life. In April 1902, the original building was badly damaged in a fire. Coleman moved the Tavern to Amsterdam Avenue at 122nd Street but the business did not make it. No matter what it looked like on the outside (and there were not many options at the time), those early Morningside alumni would fondly recall the College Tavern: “Here in the barrenness of the first days at Morningside, the drabness of classes was pleasantly broken by frequent visits to the coziness of Mike’s Tavern where they were assured a royal welcome.”

Grant’s Tomb, Manhattanville Viaduct, Horace Mann School, College Tavern, Elevated R.R. at 110th St, from Frederick Fernald’s Columbia University and Its Surroundings, 1901. Scan 5230. Frederick P. Keppel papers (Box 71), Rare Book and Manuscript Library.