Directly west of Low Library stands a building whose frieze is inscribed with the words “erected for the students that religion and learning may go hand in hand and character grow with knowledge.” The message perhaps appears out of place: many words might be used to describe Columbia, but “religious” is probably not one of them. Yet our formerly Anglican university has long been conscious of religious identity, albeit not always in the most tolerant ways. Earl Hall, the building that bears the aforementioned inscription, has remained an important center for spiritual life on campus despite Columbia’s fluctuating attitudes on the necessity of religious inclusivity.
The construction of Earl furthered President Seth Low’s initiative to make Columbia a welcoming environment for students of various religious backgrounds. It was funded by Presbyterian patron William Earl Dodge, a man of strong religious convictions, who espoused Low’s policy of religious inclusivity. His $100,000 donation was predicated on the condition that Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant students would all be afforded equal access to the space, as well as female students who attended Barnard College and Teachers College.
Earl was one of several buildings slated for construction under President Seth Low’s Morningside Heights expansion plan. Architects McKim, Mead and White were enlisted to design the prospective additions. Under McKim’s proposal, fifteen buildings of coordinating dimensions, materials and aesthetic details would surround Low Library. Critical to this design were the structures positioned just north, east and west of Low, St. Paul’s Chapel and Earl Hall respectively.
McKim planned Earl as an amalgam of Low Library and St. Paul’s Chapel, yet also incorporated “homelike” touches such as rectangular windows per Dodge’s request. The main entrance of the structure is located on the east side of the building. A flight of steps leads to a portico, where four limestone columns shoulder the inscribed frieze. The portico leads into the second floor of the building. This floor initially consisted of a reception hall, an exhibition space for the university’s trophy collection and an office space for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish student advisers and the University Chaplain. The third floor was designated as a performance theater with a 400-person occupancy, while the ground floor served as the headquarters for University Medical Services and accommodated members of University staff and student body seeking treatment beginning in 1919. The clinic boasted a waiting room, several examination cubicles, a doctor’s office and even “two dark chambers” for surgery on the eyes, nose and throat.
Earl’s relevance to the Columbia community has evolved a great deal since the building opened on March 8, 1902. By the time it was finished, President Low had left his post to serve as the mayor of New York City. His successor, Nicholas Murray Butler, somewhat undermined Earl’s potential to be an inclusive space as a result of his anti-Semitic sentiment, which eventually coalesced into a discriminatory admissions policy towards Jews. Management of the building, which Dodge had delegated to the Y.M.C.A., was taken on by the University in 1922. Medical operations were diverted to John Jay Hall following its opening in 1927, along with the trophy collection. In recent decades, the number of ministries has greatly increased and footbaths and a prayer room have been installed on the ground floor for student use.
As I walk up and down the ground floor observing the number of denominations represented, I can’t help but think the building best embodies the inscription it boasts. And maybe Columbia too.