Low Memorial Library

Low Memorial Library
NYC Landmark No. 0304, 1118
Low Memorial Library Columbia University College Walk Court Yard 05.jpg
Location in Manhattan
Location Campus of Columbia University, New York City
Coordinates 40°48′30″N 73°57′43″W / 40.80826°N 73.96188°W / 40.80826; -73.96188Coordinates: 40°48′30″N 73°57′43″W / 40.80826°N 73.96188°W / 40.80826; -73.96188
Built 1894–1897[1]
Architect Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White[1]
Architectural style Neoclassical
NRHP reference No. 87002599
NYCL No. 0304, 1118
Significant dates
Added to NRHP December 23, 1987[4]
Designated NHL December 23, 1987[5]
Designated NYCL Exterior: September 20, 1966[2]
Rotunda interior: February 3, 1981[3]

The Low Memorial Library (nicknamed Low) is a building on the campus of Columbia University in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, New York City, United States. Designed by Charles Follen McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White, the building was constructed between 1895 and 1897 as the university's central library. The building was funded with $1 million from university president Seth Low, who named the edifice in memory of his father, Abiel Abbot Low. It houses the central administrative offices of the university.

Low Library, located near 116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, is arranged in the shape of a Greek cross. Three sets of stairs on the south side of the building lead to an Ionic-style colonnade; the steps contain Daniel Chester French's sculpture Alma Mater, a university symbol. Inside, Low contains four stories, the most prominent of which is the raised first floor, which has an entrance vestibule and an ambulatory surrounding a central rotunda. The library's stacks were meant to store 1.5 million volumes.

The library was built as part of Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus, which was developed in the 1890s according to a master plan by McKim. When Low Library was completed, it was poorly suited for library use, but its central location made it a focal point of the university's campus. Following the completion of the much larger Butler Library in 1934, the building was converted to administrative offices. Low was designated as a New York City landmark in 1967, with the first-floor interior being designated in 1981. The building was also designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.


Low Library is at the center of the Columbia University campus[6][7] in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City.[1] It carries the official address 535 West 116th Street, though the section of 116th Street between Broadway to the west and Amsterdam Avenue to the east is part of the private College Walk.[8] Low is raised above the northern portion of the campus, which itself is a terrace above the South Court to the south.[9][10][11] The library building occupies the highest point of the original campus.[12][13][14]

The building is surrounded by Miller Theatre and Lewisohn Hall to the southwest; Earl Hall to the west; Mathematics and Havemeyer Halls to the west; Uris Hall to the north; Schermerhorn, Avery, and Fayerweather Halls to the northeast; St. Paul's Chapel to the east; and Buell, Philosophy, and Kent Halls to the southeast;[15] Earl Hall and St. Paul's Chapel are both designed along the same west-east axis as the library building.[16] This arrangement is part of McKim, Mead & White's design for the campus.[16][17]

Low Library steps

The stairs leading to Low are a popular meeting area for Columbia students and are also used for commencements, speeches, and other events.

The terrace is connected to the South Court by two flights of steps;[7][18] the library proper is approached by another flight above the terrace.[19] Known as "the Steps", the "Low Steps", or the "Urban Beach", they are a popular meeting area for Columbia students.[20] They also serve as a connection between the northern and southern sections of Columbia's campus.[21]

The flight from the South Court to an intermediate landing is 325 to 327 feet (99 to 100 m) wide. The flight from the intermediate landing to the terrace is narrower, at about 134 to 140 feet (41 to 43 m).[18][19] This flight itself has an intermediate landing[21] containing the Alma Mater sculpture by Daniel Chester French.[7][22] The statue depicts a woman, personifying the traditional image of the university as an alma mater.[23] Hidden in the statue's leg is an owl symbolizing knowledge and learning; college superstition has it that the first member of the incoming class to find the owl will become class valedictorian.[24][25] The centers of the stairs are curved slightly upward to remove the impression that they were sagging.[26][27] As a result, the center of each step is about 3.5 inches (89 mm) taller than the extreme ends.[18] Smaller sets of staircases connect the intermediate landing to passages at terrace level on the west and east.[19]

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger said of the Steps in 1987: "The building itself, for all the power of its immense scale and huge dome, seems almost to recede, deferring to the stairs before it."[21] During commencement speeches, Columbia's "graduation mace" is customarily carried down the stairs.[28] The stairs have also been used for other speeches, such as a 1991 speech by novelist Salman Rushdie after the Iranian government targeted him for assassination.[29]


South elevation, from the upper stories of Butler Library

The Low Memorial Library was built from 1894 to 1897 and designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, & White.[1][30][17] McKim was assisted in the design by William M. Kendall, Austin W. Lord, and Egerton Swartwout.[31][32] The library was designed in the Neoclassical style, incorporating many of the elements of Rome's Pantheon,[17][33] as well as the Baths of Caracalla.[33] It was funded by Seth Low, the president of Columbia University and later the mayor of New York City, in memory of his father Abiel Abbot Low.[34]


Low is arranged in the shape of a Greek cross, aligned with the Manhattan street grid and containing beveled corners. The main walls of the building's Greek cross correspond to the four cardinal directions.[7][33] The cross has a maximum width of 192 feet (59 m).[11][14] The Greek cross layout had been used previously in several libraries, including the main library of New York University's Bronx campus (now Gould Memorial Library on the campus of Bronx Community College), designed by McKim's colleague Stanford White.[35][36] Low's arrangement, like that of Gould's, is partly inspired by those of the Library of Congress and British Library. Unlike these other libraries, Low was designed to face away from much of the campus that was designed around it.[37]

The building is topped by a round dome.[7][33] The dome is made of brick, which is clad on the outside with limestone and on the inside with steel framing and plaster.[11][38][39] The dome is built on a radius of 52 feet (16 m), with a maximum thickness of 48 inches (120 cm) at the bottom, tapering to 9 inches (23 cm) at the pinnacle.[40] The steel framing under the dome is made of two bars of steel, 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and 12 inches (30 cm) wide. The ceiling of the rotunda underneath is a false ceiling, hung about 16 feet (4.9 m) below the inner face of the dome.[41] Otherwise, the dome is made of stone that is designed to be self-supporting.[14][41] The dome was specifically inspired by the Rotunda, the main library designed by Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, and it was also more indirectly evocative of that above the Pantheon.[42][43]


Frieze inscription

The base of Low, which is 12 feet (3.7 m) high, is made of granite.[11][19][44] A staircase, with 22[11] or 26 steps,[19] leads from the terrace to the main entrance portico on the building's south facade. The steps are each 86 feet (26 m) wide. The highest step, the stylobate of the portico, corresponds to the top of the base.[19] The entrance portico consists of a colonnade of ten columns designed in the Ionic order, which in turn support a cornice and attic.[7][33] Each of the columns is 35 feet (11 m) tall,[11][19] with a diameter of 4 feet (1.2 m).[11] The frieze above the columns reads "Library of Columbia University".[11][45] An inscription above the colonnade describes the founding of the university.[7] It reads:[45]

King's College Founded in the Province of New York
By Royal Charter in the Reign of George II
Perpetuated as Columbia College by the People of the State of New York
When they became Free and Independent – Maintained and Cherished from Generation to Generation
For the Advancement of the Public Good and the Glory of Almighty God

The building was designed with a total of 150 windows, the smallest of which measured 10 by 4 feet (3.0 by 1.2 m).[46] The upper section of the facade is clad in limestone,[11][44][47] as contrasted with the surrounding buildings, which are generally made of brick with limestone trim.[44][47] The west, north, and east walls are designed with pilasters similar in design to that of the colonnade; the pilasters flank windows that are deeply set into the facade. The corners of the Greek cross also have deeply set windows. The roof of the Greek cross's "arms" is about 70 feet (21 m) above the ground level of the terrace.[19]

Above the top of the cross, Low's walls are arranged as an octagonal drum supporting the dome. The walls rise to a height of 100 feet (30 m) above the surrounding terrace.[19] The four main walls each large half-round windows.[7][33] The half-round windows were evocative of the lunettes atop the Baths of Caracalla.[36] The windows were designed to measure either 44 or 50 feet (13 or 15 m) across and 22 feet (6.7 m) high.[19][46] The top of the dome is around 135 feet (41 m) above terrace level[14][19] and 152 feet (46 m) above the grade of what was formerly 116th Street.[19]


Low contains four stories. The ground level is a raised basement, while the first floor is one story above ground.[19][45] The interior of the first floor consists of an entrance vestibule on the south side of the building, which leads to an ambulatory surrounding a central rotunda.[48][49] The first floor shared design influences with the reading room at the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson Building, the Administration Building at the World's Columbian Exposition, and the nearby Grant's Tomb.[50][51] The second floor had a gallery on the south arm and the closed stacks on the north, east, and west arms. The third floor was devoted entirely to lecture rooms.[19]

The library's stacks were meant to store 1.5 million volumes. Graduate students used the open stacks and adjacent small reading rooms, while undergraduates could only use the closed stacks, using the rotunda as a central reading room.[10] Eighteen small reading rooms were provided in total.[52] Elmer E. Garnsey was hired to create the library's interior color scheme.[53] As of 2010, the exhibition space in the building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.[30] Columbia students, staff, and faculty can also book the spaces on the first floor for events.[54][a]

Trustees' room

Low's main entrance contains bronze and glass entrance doors leading to a double-height vestibule[55][56] measuring 30 by 33 feet (9.1 by 10.1 m).[45] The original doors were made of oak; McKim had proposed that bronze doors be used, but Low rejected the doors as "out of harmony with our ideals and with the ideals of my father".[57] At the entryway are bronze busts of Zeus and Apollo.[45][55] The vestibule contains a marble floor with red, rust, beige, and gray panels in an octagonal arrangement.[56] George W. Maynard had sculpted eight panels with bronze reliefs depicting the twelve zodiac signs.[45][55] The panels had been manufactured by John Williams and displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition, after which they were donated to Columbia University.[57] The vestibule contains a white marble bust of Pallas Athena, modeled after the Minerve du Collier at the Louvre.[45][55][57]

Oak doors on the west and east link to sets of four marble steps, which connect to what was respectively the president's and trustees' offices.[55][56] Above these doors are stone architraves with molded leaf-and-dart motifs, as well as lintels with paneling. On either side of the doors are double-height limestone pilasters with gilded capitals.[55] Several portraits were hung in both rooms.[45] The trustees' room, to the east, was decorated by the Herter Brothers with oak paneling.[57] The center of the trustees' room has a Georgian-style fireplace mantel, which contains a broken pediment holding an iron crown from King's College, the predecessor of Columbia University. The mantel has a cornerstone from King's College's original building, as well as a portrait of the college's founding president Samuel Johnson.[58][59]

The rest of the vestibule's walls have plaster panels, bordered by green-and-gold acanthus-leaf motifs, and band courses with Greek fretwork. Each corner of the vestibule has a pilaster similar to those flanking the west and east doors, as well as a wrought-iron lamp. The south wall has a narrow balcony, which is illuminated by a lattice of crossbars, while the north wall is a double window above a set of four steps to the rotunda.[55] Laurel leaves and medallions divide the ceiling of the vestibule into nine coffers.[55] The central coffer has a bronze lantern above the Pallas Athena bust.[55][57]

The ambulatory is an octagonal hallway around the rotunda.[55][50] It consists of alternating longer and shorter passages; the longer passages correspond to the cardinal directions, while the shorter passages correspond to the intercardinal directions (northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast).[55] The floor has alternating squares and circles, made of marble and laid in hues of red, yellow, and black-and-white.[53][55] There is a bronze bas-relief of the university's seal at the center of the floor.[55]

In the longer passages, the walls have Doric-style limestone pilasters as well as orange plaster panels, bordered by leaf motifs and band course like those in the vestibule. There are also oak panels, which correspond to the former bookcases of the rotunda.[55] The south hallway contains a pair of green double-height Connemara marble columns, screening it from the entrance vestibule.[45][55][60] The columns each weigh 25 short tons (22 long tons; 23 t); they were quarried out of the largest blocks of Connemara marble that were available when the library was built.[11] The ceiling of the south hallway is divided into five coffers, with a bronze lamp hanging from the outermost coffer on either side. The west, north, and east hallways have similar ceilings but are illuminated by three bronze lanterns.[55] The north hall has a balcony while the south and east halls have gates to the rotunda.[48]

Offices and additional libraries surrounded the ambulatory.[19][50] The outer walls of the west, north, and east hallways have double wooden doors at the center, which lead to offices.[55] Formerly, these doorways led to catalogue and specialized libraries.[50][53] The doors on the east hall led to the Avery Architectural Library, while the north hall's doors led to the law library.[19][41][53] The Avery Architectural Library's ceiling beams contained the inscriptions of architects' names.[53] The west hall's doors led to the administrative offices.[19] The west wing had contained the periodical, catalogue, and delivery rooms.[41][61] The periodical room was described as measuring 61 by 37 feet (19 by 11 m), with a two-story-high ceiling. In addition, there was an exhibition room measuring 39 by 54 feet (12 by 16 m).[62]

In the shorter passages, the decoration is simpler. The walls are made of plaster and unornamented, with arched doorways that are recessed and flanked by simple pilasters. The halls also have arched ceilings. They are illuminated by bronze lamps that are placed on marble pedestals, with lions' heads below them and glass globes above. Staircases rise to the upper levels, adjacent to each of the shorter sections of the ambulatory.[63]

Interior of rotunda
Rotunda, c. 1900–10
The building was later converted to administrative use and the rotunda became a ceremonial space

The center of Low's first floor contains an octagonal rotunda, which was formerly the library reading room when the building was used for its original function.[55][56] The rotunda has four longer walls, corresponding to the cardinal directions, and four shorter walls, corresponding to the intercardinal directions.[b] The reading room contained circular tables, each of which was lit by a reading lamp.[38][64] The seats of the reading room were arranged in four rings of concentric circles.[61] Four columns adjoined a reference desk at the center of the rotunda. There was a decorative iron structure above the columns, topped by a four-sided clock with a sculpture of a bronze eagle.[65]

The main walls of the rotunda each contain four Vermont-granite columns with gilt-bronze Ionic-style capitals, screening the rotunda from the ambulatory.[55][56][60] Each column is 29 feet (8.8 m) tall, supporting a third-story balcony,[62] and each of the capitals weighs almost one ton.[11] Vermont marble was chosen because it closely resembled Connemara marble, which could not be used for the rotunda due to the scarcity of large pieces of that material.[66] Bookcases were originally placed between the columns; rising to eye level, they gave the impression of an enclosed space.[50][64][67] Depictions of Roman and Greek luminaries, Demosthenes, Euripides, Sophocles, and Augustus Caesar, are placed on the balcony along the north wall.[62][63][68] One of these figures (that of Euripides) was personally funded by McKim.[53][68] Twelve figures were planned for the other walls but were never built.[63]

The corners of the rotunda have large limestone piers that contain ducts inside. The piers serve as pendentives for the rotunda's ceiling and contain gold circles.[50][56][63] Inscriptions of four medieval sciences, Law, Philosophy, Medicine, and Theology, decorate the piers.[56][63] The tops of the pendentives are beveled.[50] The piers of the rotunda also support vaults on each of the building's main walls, which contain the half-round windows.[19] During the daytime, the lunette windows atop the walls provided sufficient illumination.[38][41][69]

The ceiling of the rotunda measures 105.5 feet (32.2 m) tall and 73 feet (22 m) across.[56][63][62] The ceiling is a false dome, made of plaster over steel mesh, and is painted sky blue.[39][41][56][63] The ribs of the false dome are spaced 4 feet (1.2 m) apart at the springing of the arches.[41] A sphere was suspended from the ceiling, reflecting light from eight spotlight beams on the room's third-floor balconies at night.[38][69] The globe was specifically meant to resemble the moon.[64][69] This sphere measured 7 feet (2.1 m) across and hung from a steel wire 0.25 inches (6.4 mm) thick, giving the impression that the sphere floated in midair.[69] It is not known whether the spotlights were ever used for their intended purpose, but the sphere has since been removed.[70]

There was a subbasement below ground, which contained heating and ventilating apparatus and a storage room.[14] The basement contains doors at its four corners.[45][61] When the Low Memorial Library was operating as such, they were the entrances that students generally used, since the basement entrances were more convenient from the rest of the campus grounds.[61] The basement had cloak rooms, the office of superintendent of buildings and grounds, a sub-post office, a telegraph office, and telephone booths.[45] It also contained a portion of the stacks.[61][65][71] The basement stacks could be used to store 150,000 volumes.[65] A separate stack room served the law library in the north wing, connected to it by stairs.[72]

The law library took up the entire north wing, so the north side of the second story contained law collections. The east side had social sciences collections, with the Columbiana collection on the northeast corner, while the west side had modern language collections. The south wing only has a balcony, since that space is the top of the entrance vestibule.[62] The third-story balconies formerly held the open stacks,[56][63][73] which were used by graduate students.[50] Some 16,000 volumes were stored in the gallery stacks.[65] The third floor had history and philosophy collections as well as offices and workrooms.[62] Ten lecture halls also occupied the third story.[41] The layout of the second and third stories allowed different specialties to have seminar areas and private study rooms near the stacks corresponding to their subject.[74]


In April 1892, Columbia University acquired a site in Morningside Heights between Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, and 116th and 120th Street, the former site of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. The university was housed in Midtown Manhattan at the time.[75][76] The next month, Columbia University president Seth Low hired Charles Follen McKim, Charles C. Haight, and Richard Morris Hunt as consultants to plan a new campus there.[76][77][78] The process became an architectural design competition in practice, with each architect preparing multiple plans in different styles.[78][79][80] In April 1893, the architects presented their findings to the trustees.[81] The center of the site was higher than its surroundings, which had led McKim to develop a classical-style campus around that high point.[13] Columbia ultimately hired McKim to design the new Morningside Heights campus in late 1893.[78][82][83][84]


The final plan for Low Library, published in Harper's Weekly in 1894 on the eve of the building's construction

Columbia's trustees approved the first iteration of McKim's campus plan in April[82][85][86] or May 1894, with a rectangular library building surrounded by symmetrical rows of buildings on either side.[32][87] The library was to face south toward a main entrance on 116th Street, with a court to the north, an assembly hall to the west, and a chapel to the east.[32][86][87] This initial plan was not successful, as the pathways around the library were overly narrow, and the assembly hall, library, and chapel appeared to form a wall dividing the campus's north and south halves.[32] Consequently, the plans underwent further refinement through mid-1894.[82][88] McKim, working with his colleagues Kendall, Lord, and Swartwout, considered circular and octagonal layouts for the library before finally deciding on a cruciform layout.[31]

McKim wrote to his partner William Rutherford Mead in July 1894, saying that, though "the scheme for the Library has undergone many changes", he and his colleagues had finally devised a suitable revised plan.[31][33][86] The library would be placed on the highest point of the site, surrounded by the other buildings on campus,[46][89] with a dome 300 feet (91 m) above the water level of the nearby Hudson River.[46] To make the library stand out, McKim designed a grand stairway for the 116th Street frontage.[46][90] Furthermore, the assembly hall and chapel were pulled back from the library to the west and east, creating small courtyards on either side.[42][64][90] Columbia president Low had contemplated whether the other buildings should be ornately decorated so the trustees could approve of the design, but McKim believed the library should have a simple, yet grand, style.[91] The trustees approved this proposal in November 1894, with the library to cost $700,000.[91][92][93] Later that month, a model of the library was exhibited at the American Fine Arts Society.[94]

After plans for the library were approved, the trustees received bids for the construction of the library and surrounding buildings.[95] At the time, Columbia had sufficient funds to construct only a few buildings, and there was not enough money to construct the library.[34] The construction contract was awarded to Norcross Brothers in May 1895.[95] A few days after the construction contract was awarded, Seth Low donated $1 million to the library in memory of his father, Abiel Abbot Low. In exchange, the library would be named the Low Memorial Library.[96][12] The donation reportedly comprised a third of Seth Low's fortune.[51][97] News media praised the donation profusely,[34] and the donation was reported on the front pages of the city's newspapers for several days.[98] McKim thanked president Low for the donation, saying "that if, when the Library building shall be completed, your confidence in our firm prove to not have been misplaced, I shall regard [the library] one of the greatest happinesses of my life."[34]

A modern view of the rotunda, showing the interior pillars made of polished green Vermont granite and crowned with Greek Ionic capitals of gilt bronze

Seth Low requested that McKim draw designs for a library with a facade of marble, limestone, or brick and limestone.[44] The initial plans had called for using a marble facade, but Low had been hesitant to use such an expensive material, instead preferring to use brick for the library, and McKim had wanted to use a material with a "monumental character", namely limestone.[91] Construction had started by June 18, 1895.[42] The initial work included excavating the library's foundation.[99] Seth Low had wished to hold a cornerstone-laying ceremony in late 1895, but he postponed these plans after the opening of New York University's library that October, since he did not want to hold a similar event in such close succession.[99] The Low Library's cornerstone was informally laid on December 7, 1895.[100][101]

When the walls of the library were being constructed, McKim had planned to create the library's dome out of concrete, carried on iron trusses with limestone cladding.[38][102] Columbia's architecture departmental head William Robert Ware argued that such a design would not be "a real dome".[39] McKim then proposed a Guastavino tile dome, to which Ware agreed. The Norcross Brothers then proposed an unreinforced concrete dome that they had planned themselves, and McKim submitted plans to the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB). The DOB delayed issuing the permit until November 1895, likely in part because of the uncertainties over the new design.[39] By then, the architects feared that the cold weather would weaken the concrete, forcing the dome to be delayed until possibly the spring. Consequently, the dome was made of brick, with metal lath and plaster on the inner surface and limestone on the outside.[38][39] The site of Columbia University's new campus was officially dedicated on May 2, 1896.[103] Work was rapidly progressing on the library by then.[104]

Seth Low had wanted all of the library's columns to be made of Connemara marble but, because of their large diameters, only two columns of that size could be quarried with the material available. NYU had been able to purchase sixteen narrower columns of Connemara marble for its own library; its architect, McKim's partner Stanford White, boasted about how Columbia's library was unable to secure the same material.[39] Therefore, Columbia's two Connemara marble columns were placed at the entrance to the vestibule, where they were most prominent, while Vermont marble was used for the other sixteen columns.[66] Another issue arose regarding inscriptions for the exterior friezes, which Low started to discuss at the end of 1896.[69][105] He devised some ideas for inscriptions during mid-1897, suggesting to McKim that the inscriptions describe Columbia's history.[105] The Columbia trustees disagreed over whether such inscriptions should be in English or Latin, as well as the locations of these inscriptions. Ultimately they gave McKim permission only for the inscription above the main entrance.[69] The existing Columbia library closed for three months starting in June 1897 for the relocation of the collection.[106]

Library use

Low Library shortly following its completion in 1897

The new Columbia University campus opened on October 4, 1897.[107][108][109] The opening was marked with a small ceremony in the library's reading room, during which Seth Low announced his resignation.[108][109] Low Library was not completed at the time, with the power plant and other mechanical systems not in operation;[109] the final details were still being installed through 1898.[107] From the beginning, the building served not only as a library but also as the university's administrative offices.[52] The library could store 450,000 volumes in its stacks.[71] Additional space on the third floor was temporarily being allocated to Columbia's political science and philosophy departments.[14] These departments were expected to relocate to dedicated quarters some time in the future, freeing up space for another 600,000 volumes.[71]

University officials believed the new library was sufficient to accommodate the university's collection, which in 1896 contained 215,000 volumes and was accumulating 12,000 volumes a year. The campus had 1,353 students across all programs in 1898, and the library was expected to be able to easily accommodate all of these students.[71] The collection grew much more quickly after the opening of the Morningside Heights campus, with 300,000 volumes by 1900.[110] A university pamphlet the following year said the library was open on weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 11 p.m., with the library closing one hour earlier from July to September. At the time, the library had about 10,000 volumes in the general reading room as well as 310,000 bound volumes and many pamphlets in the stacks.[52] The steps outside the library became a common meeting area for Columbia undergraduates in the early years of the campus.[111] In 1903, the Alma Mater sculpture was installed on the steps leading to the library.[112]

Low Library, c. 1902–05

The collection was organized in a compartmentalized manner, and different departments expanded at different paces, which caused problems for the building's operation as a library.[71][51] By 1902, Nicholas Murray Butler, who had replaced Seth Low as university president, was already observing crowded conditions at the library,[71] and American Architect magazine also observed that "one or two utilitarian points have been rather sacrificed".[73] In addition, it was difficult to call books from the stacks. The 10,000-foot-long (3,000 m) pneumatic tube delivery system stopped working two weeks after it was installed, and a dumbwaiter system also broke down.[65] The crowding worsened in later years because the political science and philosophy departments did not move as scheduled, and because of increased enrollment in general: by 1914, the university had 4,225 students.[71] The overcrowding was slightly alleviated in 1910 when the law library relocated to the newly built Kent Hall.[113][114] Two years later, Avery Hall opened.[115][116] The Avery Architectural Library, too, had outgrown its space at Low.[113] The increasing overcrowding led Columbia's newspaper to say in a 1924 article, "'Library' is a misnomer for an edifice designed for the benefit of sightseers."[65]

In a 1921 report, Butler said: "Pressure upon the Library of the University has become such as well nigh to paralyze it."[117] In the university's annual report that year, Butler suggested that a library could be created in University Hall, completion of which had been delayed over the years.[117] A 1923 guidebook reported: "The room seats 152 readers, 15,000 reference volumes arranged on the shelves. The library contains in all about 835,000 volumes, beside pamphlets, manuscripts, and 50,000 doctoral dissertations."[62] Charles C. Williamson, who was appointed Dean of the Columbia School of Library Service in 1926,[118] wrote to Butler the following August, suggesting the creation of a new library.[119] In his letter, Williamson said that "a condition has been reached which threatens to hamper the growth and development of the University".[117][119] Williamson suggested that Columbia's library system needed space for at least four million volumes. Low's rotunda had become overcrowded with a reference collection, while the card catalogs could not be sufficiently accommodated in the building.[119]

Williamson began soliciting funds from philanthropist and Columbia alumnus Edward Harkness, and he commissioned James Gamble Rogers to design a new library.[120] Rogers's ambitious plan to complete University Hall also included a bridge and tunnel connecting it with Low.[121][122] As part of this plan, the north wing of the library would have been gutted and replaced with a staircase leading to the bridge.[123] The plan was never realized, however, as large portions of University Hall would have had to be rebuilt in order to accommodate the extra weight of the books, and the project was deemed too expensive.[121] In December 1930, Butler asked that Harkness fund a completely new building on South Field, facing Low from across 116th Street.[121][124] Rogers devised a final design for South Hall (now Butler Library) in April 1931.[125][126] The new library, which Harkness agreed to fund that May, would be able to hold four million volumes.[127][128]

Administrative offices

Upon the completion of Butler Library, the contents of Low were transported to their new home using a slide.
Commencement in front of Low Library, 2005

The new South Hall was dedicated on November 30, 1934.[129] Some 700,000 volumes had to be transported between the old and new library buildings,[130] so a giant slide was used to transport the 22 miles (35 km) of books in Low's stacks to the new library.[131][132] Low continued to host the president's and secretary's office, the summer session, and the Columbiana and Rare Book Collections. The rest of the building predominantly contained faculty offices.[65] Because people continued to refer to the building as "Low Library", this confused some students who believed the building actually served as a library.[133]

In the early years after the South Hall library was completed, the building was used for events such as an exhibit of fine books,[134] a show of Navajo art,[135] and a display of rare religious art.[136] Low was also used to host large ceremonies with notable guests of honor.[65][133] These guests included George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Britain, who visited Low in 1939,[137][138] as well as British prime minister Winston Churchill and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.[65] In 1948, the west wing of the first floor was renovated as an office for the General of the U.S. Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he became Columbia's president.[139] Edmund Astley Prentis, as well as his wife and sister, donated a colonial-style drawing room to Low Library in 1960.[140] Four years later, the north wing was turned into the Faculty Room, a reception hall with oak paneling.[141]

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated Low as a city landmark in 1966.[142][143] During the 1968 Columbia protests, Low was occupied by students objecting to, among other things, the proposed construction of a university-owned gymnasium in Morningside Park, as well as Columbia's involvement with the Vietnam War.[144] A major anti-war protest also took place in 1972.[145] Among the more unconventional uses of the library's interior took place in the 1970s, when a model airplane club was allowed to use the rotunda for flying miniature aircraft during the weekends.[146] The rotunda continued to host other events like the annual Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for news broadcasters.[147] The LPC designated the first-floor interior as a city landmark in 1981.[1] In addition, the library was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.[148][149]

In 2001, Columbia began to renovate Low's roof and add new mechanical systems to plans by David Paul Helpern Associates. The work was projected to cost $14.5 million, and the installation of the new mechanical systems would enable Columbia officials to remove mechanical equipment on the roof. At the time, the building was still open to the public on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.[133] Through the 21st century, Low continued to be the location of large events such as protests and rallies. For example, students conducted a sit-in and a "sleep-out" in 2016 to demand divestment from fossil fuel companies,[150] and a chapter of Extinction Rebellion protested in the building in 2019.[151]

Critical reception

The 1954 Columbia University bicentennial stamp, depicting Low Library

Low Library was intended not only to symbolize Columbia's new campus but also to serve as a functioning administrative center.[71] A 1995 article from the journal Library Columns said that the cornerstone of the library symbolized the cornerstone of the entire campus "not only architecturally, but philosophically and philanthropically".[91] Some early publications praised the design; one source said the library was "a utilitarian scheme artistically carried out",[71] and another ranked the library "among the foremost in the world".[152] In 2010, the AIA Guide to New York City described Low Library as "Columbia University's most noteworthy visual symbol" and a "dignified centerpiece for the campus".[30]

Conversely, the Real Estate Record and Guide, believing Low to be patterned after a French church by "the architect Rumpf", criticized the design as being "plagiarized" from the older church.[133][153] Montgomery Schuyler, who resented the fact that the Columbia campus had not been designed in a Collegiate Gothic style, wrote in 1910 "that the library of Columbia is a 'library de luxe and not de books'", citing a French friend.[51][71][154]

In 1954, during the University's bicentennial, Low was commemorated on a postage stamp.[155] For the University's semiquincentennial in 2004, an image of the library was placed on a pre-stamped postcard.[156]

See also



  1. ^ According to Columbia University's website, the Faculty Room, Burden Room, Rotunda, and Trustee's Room on the first story above ground are denoted as being on the "second floor". This considers the ground floor as the "first floor".[54]
  2. ^ According to an 1898 Scientific American article, the "short diameter" between the longer walls is 75 feet (23 m) while the "long diameter" between the shorter walls was 85 feet (26 m).[11] According to a 1923 guidebook, the short diameter is 73 feet (22 m).[62]


  1. ^ a b c d e New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; Dolkart, Andrew S.; Postal, Matthew A. (2009). Postal, Matthew A. (ed.). Guide to New York City Landmarks (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-470-28963-1.
  2. ^ "NYCLPC Designation Report" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on August 3, 2012. Retrieved January 17, 2015.
  3. ^ Landmarks Preservation Commission 1981, p. 1.
  4. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
  5. ^ "Low Memorial Library". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. September 15, 2007. Archived from the original on March 18, 2012. Retrieved September 16, 2007.
  6. ^ "Maps & Directions". Columbia University Libraries. Archived from the original on June 18, 2021. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h National Park Service 1987, p. 2.
  8. ^ "Building Information". Columbia University Facilities. Archived from the original on June 13, 2021. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
  9. ^ Dolkart 1998, pp. 132–133.
  10. ^ a b Passanti 1977, p. 78.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Scientific American 1898, p. 200.
  12. ^ a b New-York Tribune May 17, 1895, p. 1.
  13. ^ a b Roth 1983, pp. 188–189.
  14. ^ a b c d e f "The New Library Building at Columbia University, New York". Scientific American Building Edition. 23 (3): 37. March 1, 1897. ProQuest 88783522.
  15. ^ "Maps and Directions – Morningside Heights" (PDF). Visitors Center. Columbia University. August 7, 2015. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 16, 2021. Retrieved September 24, 2021.
  16. ^ a b Stern, Gilmartin & Massengale 1983, p. 409.
  17. ^ a b c Landmarks Preservation Commission 1981, p. 3.
  18. ^ a b c Architectural Record 1899, p. 86.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r New-York Tribune May 17, 1895, p. 3.
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