When the tapered, art deco towers of Rockefeller Center opened in 1939, America’s richest family did not own the bedrock upon which they stood. Rather, they were leasing the land from Columbia, which had acquired the property 125 years earlier.
The present day home of NBC was built upon land originally purchased in 1801 for $5,000 by David Hosack, a Columbia Medical School professor who had treated Alexander Hamilton after his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Hosack decided to use his land to build Manhattan’s first botanical garden, but when the cost of maintaining it grew too great, he sold the property back to the state for $75,000. The state, seemingly uninterested in maintaining the property, donated the land to Columbia in 1814.
The Trustees of the College were dissatisfied with the gift. They viewed the land (which was then outside of the city limits) as “neither attractive nor useful,” because it was “so far out in the country.” Although the College could rent out small parcels of the property, its taxes outweighed its revenues.
The property became much more useful in 1928, when Columbia signed an agreement with the Rockefeller Group that would secure the university an annual income of $3.3 million for 21 years. With its new tenant, Columbia was guaranteed a significant and consistent financial resource while the rest of the country suffered throughout the Great Depression.
Under the leadership of Columbia President Dr. William J. McGill, the University was able to almost triple the annual income from the Rockefeller property when renewing their lease in 1973. McGill spun the profitable deal as an act of public service—stating that "Columbia University and Rockefeller Center will continue to work harmoniously and in concert to strengthen New York City and to insure the City's future excellence, goals to which we are both deeply dedicated."
Apparently, the University’s dedication to the “future excellence” of the City extended insofar as it was lucrative. When the University’s Trustees realized that a larger profit could be made by selling the property and investing the money from the sale in government securities and bonds, they quickly sold it in 1985 for $400 million, doubling the University’s endowment at the time. Although the University effectively severed its legal ties with Rockefeller Center through the sale, Columbia still maintains a periphery connection to the property. In 2000, Jerry Speyer—a Columbia alumnus and former University Trustee—bought the entirety of Rockefeller Center for $1.85 billion.
One beautiful snowy day this winter, I was walking down Broadway when something stopped me in my tracks. In the window of a liquor store, I noticed a massive sign that read “Bollinger Champagne.” I consider
myself something of a sparkling wine aficionado, but for some reason I’d never made the connection between this storied champagne house and Columbia University’s very own beloved President Lee Bollinger. What a spectacular empire our main man is at the helm of—Ivy League and bubbles—beautiful!
Further down the block I had another serendipitous realization. I had scurried into a home improvement store to buy some primer to cover up the human blood splattered across my dorm walls. Wandering down the aisle, I realized that every can, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, was labeled “Benjamin Moore.” Benjamin Moore! Benjamin Moore, the 5th president of Columbia University, an Episcopalian bishop, and, apparently, king of a midrange paint production company! How had I never connected my favorite brand of paint with one of my school’s most distinguished rulers? Moore presided over Columbia for a whole nine years in the late 1700s, yet nobody talks about him OR his reasonably priced paints!
I decided to rush home and do some more research. Before I could say “lickety-split” eighteen times fast I was awash in a treasure trove of historical trivia that Columbia has so eagerly tried to hide. Lee and Benjamin aside, we also have a funkadelic man in our mix! George Clinton has not only made unparalleled contributions to the history of Funk and Soul music, but he also made time to govern Columbia from 1784-1787.
Columbia's audacity—its refusal to even acknowledge the powerful history that makes this university so unique—infuriated me so much that I decided to take action. I called up my travel agent and had her buy me a one-way ticket to Colombia.
Packing my bags, I managed to get a call through to another silent hero of our humble institution, President Juan Manuel Santos. He agreed to meet and discuss the best way to put Colombian history on the main world stage in 2016.
An unsightly green plywood wall blocks off Lehman Lawn and Wollman Library from the rest of Barnard’s campus. Through the small dia-mond windows along the barrier, one can see an odd juxtapositioning of construction tape and student murals. On the handle of the former library’s front door, someone has written “NO” and an “X” in red letters. In the shadows of demolition and construction, many students have begun to feel ill at ease. What does this change mean for the community? As if in response to this anxious atmosphere, one student has painted: “Don’t be afraid.”
The move has not been entirely smooth, and books are scattered across campus in such a confusing way that the Barnard Instructional Media and Technology Services (IMATS), along with a Barnard Librarian, made an explanatory video on the distribution. The 20,000 most circulated books have been moved to Butler, while the LeFrak Center houses new purchases, the archives, and the zine collection. Located in Barnard Hall, the newly dubbed “LeFrakbary” ironically serves as a better community space than the library’s former location.
Jenna Freedman, the Zine Librarian and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Librarian at Barnard spoke about what was gained in the move: "For me the biggest gain is intimacy. I love being so close to the archives, which was two floors away from Lehman."
The close proximity to the Empirical Reasoning Center has allowed for greater exchange between the archival and technical departments, and the opportunity to interact with other researchers. Whether it is Collection Services staff, students studying, or faculty walking past her office, she “can’t help but look up when someone passes by.”
Freedman continues, "Being in Barnard Hall feels great, too. We're on the ground floor of the first building you see when you enter campus from the main entrance. That's the kind of prominence a library should have, right?"