from the collection of the New York Public Library
King's College was chartered in 1754 with the Archbishop of Canterbury among its governors. The first president, Dr. Samuel Johnson conducted the first class of eight men in the vestry room of Trinity Church.
Trinity Church was highly involved in the institution and in 1754 presented the trustees part of a large tract of land granted it by Queen Anne. The King's College portion included the land between Murray and Barclay Streets, and from Broadway to the North (i.e., Hudson) River. On July 13, 1756 the cornerstone was laid for an impressive edifice on the portion bounded by New Church Street (the "New" was later dropped) and Broadway, and Murray and Robinson Street (later Park Place). Historian Preserved Smith described the location as "in the suburbs of the capital."
Years later an article in the June 1918 edition of Gas Logic recalled, "At the time of the laying of the corner-stone a dinner was given at the famous tavern, then new, the Province Arms. The Lieutenant-Governor and the governors of the college and the students were assembled there and proceeded to the college grounds. After the ceremony of laying the stone they all returned to the tavern, where an elegant dinner was served."
Construction was completed in 1760. The Georgian style structure faced Murray Street and was 180 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Michael E. Newton, in his Alexander Hamilton, The Formative Years, notes:
It housed a large hall on the ground floor where students ate meals, heard lectures, and attended religious services. Immediately above that was an equally large library that housed some fifteen-hundred volumes, mostly legal and theological books, along with various historical and biological "curiosities."
The upper floors held study areas and sleeping rooms. In 1763 the new president, Dr. Myles Cooper wrote:
The College is situated on a dry, gravelly soil, about one hundred and fifty yards from the bank of the Hudson River, which it overlooks; commanding, from the eminence on which it stands, a most extensive and beautiful prospect of the opposite shore and country of New-Jersey, the City and Island of New-York, Long Island, Staten Island, New-York Bay with its islands, the Narrows forming the mouth of the harbor, etc. And being totally unencumbered by any adjacent buildings, and admitting the purest circulation of air from the river, and every other quarter, has the benefit of as agreeable and healthy a situation as can possibly be conceived.
The 1776 map of Major Holland, Surveyor General, shows the location of the college (upper left). Historical Guide to the City of New York, 1906 (copyright expired)
When the colony was rocked by revolution, the president of the school fled to England and the students were evacuated from the building. The 1894 General Catalogue of Columbia College recalled, "In April, 1776, at the request of the Committee of Safety, the College was prepared for the reception of the Continental troops; the students were dispersed; and the Library and apparatus were removed to the City Hall. During this interval the exercises of the College were suspended." The building was used as a hospital and barracks.
In 1784 the school reopened, but under a new name. King's College was now Columbia College. The first graduate of the newly-christened institution was future Mayor and Governor DeWitt Clinton.
Graduation ceremonies were important events. The Gazette of the United-States noted that present at the graduation on May 8, 1789 were "The President--His Excellency the Vice-President--the Senate, and House of Representatives of the United States--The Governor and principal Officers of this Republic." The article touched on the importance of the institution within the fledgling country:
The late public commencement...is an happy presage to the future character and prosperity of this country, that its youth, when in pursuit of literary attainments, do not confine their attention to the dull paths of mere scholastick [sic] study, but acquire some general and useful ideas respecting commerce, police and ethics. Under such regulations, may we not hope to be successfully furnished with patriots and legislators, who will come forth into public life, endowed with such knowledge...as will render them both the ornament and safeguard of our rifing republic?
By 1817 the building was not only in need of repair, but its growing enrollment had made it inadequate. The New York Herald later recalled, "In 1817, steps were taken for the repair of the old edifice, which was in a very dilapidated condition, and for the erection of additional buildings. In 1820 the proposed alterations and additions were completed."
The 1820 renovations included additions at both ends. from the collection of the New York Public Library
As the school's centennial approached, on July 22, 1853 The New York Times remarked, "Endowed largely by a munificent grant, (part of the endowment of Trinity Church), she is not strictly a Church College; though her President must always be a churchman, and although the majority of her Trustees, and her Faculty, have generally been Episcopalians, yet in every Board of Trustees, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and Baptist denominations have been represented, and at one time, even the Jews." By now the school had more than 125 students and its library contained 16,000 volumes.
At the time of the article, the once bucolic area around Columbia College was increasingly being hemmed in by business buildings. On January 30, 1857 The New York Times reported on the sale of the Columbia property, calling it "the largest sale of fine City property that has taken place for some time."
The trustees had purchased the former Deaf and Dumb Institution on 50th Street near Fourth (later Park) Avenue. On April 1, 1857 The New York Times remarked, "There is a lively time now in the College building, preparatory to a change of quarters." The article noted, "By the terms of the late sale of their property, the College may hold possession until the 10th of May, but they are anxious to get away as soon as the alterations now going on in the up-town edifice are completed."
On May 15 the New-York Daily Tribune remarked, "Now the College buildings, from whose classic walls many of our brightest intellects have gone forth into the world and signalized themselves in the various professions and pursuits of life, have been doomed." The venerable structure was demolished by the end of August and replaced by modern loft buildings.
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