A brief history of International House.
By Sadia Haque
Founded in 1924 by Harry Edmonds, International House was created in the hopes of bringing students from all over the world together to build a community to support and learn from one another. From Chinua Achebe to Leonard Cohen to the former prime minister of Iraq, Mohammad Fadhel Jamali, I-House has housed some of the most famous and influential people worldwide. It was the first global community of its kind, predating the United Nations by 21 years. Currently, it’s designated as a New York City landmark and continues to lodge students from all walks of life.
“The whole building is kind of fancy inside,” said Anja Fesenmeyer, a visiting student from Germany who is interning in the city for the semester. Walking in, the very essence of all the famous singers, writers, diplomats, and artists who lived there permeates the air. The building itself recalls a bygone era, with the ornate chandeliers and columns in the main lounge, the wood-paneled Dodge Room, and the vast garden patio in the back.
During the early years of I-House, students gathered for weekly Sunday suppers. According to his New York Times obituary, Harry Edmonds came up with the idea after he had an encounter with a Chinese student outside of Columbia and decided he wanted to do something to make international students studying in New York feel more welcome. He and his wife began inviting these students into their own home for a meal each week. Soon, influential New York money-makers like John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Cleveland H. Dodge heard of the project and invested in the construction of a physical I-House. After its creation, Edmond went on to found others like it, all financed by Rockefeller, in California, Chicago, and Paris.
Beyond the novelty of providing a gathering space for international students, I-House was also the first coeducational residence hall students at the University could live in, and would be until 1987, when Columbia College began accepting women.
I-House’s relationship with Columbia has always been a close one, though, technically, it is meant to host students from many different Manhattan universities, including NYU, Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard. Now, there are fewer Columbians than ever living in the building, despite the continued official association between the house and the University.
Currently, the house and its members are working to establish programs with various universities all over the world. It is open to inviting graduate students, undergrads over the age of 20, visiting scholars, and I-House alumni. The house now has yearly programs celebrating the diverse cultural backgrounds represented within the community, as well as influential guest speakers and a multitude of scholarship and fellowship opportunities available for residents.
Amy Tsai, CC ’21, stumbled upon I-House when she lost guaranteed housing at Columbia after taking a year off. She appreciates the amenities available to her, as well as the community she has found living in it. “This is literally the best living experience I’ve ever had, just for my undergrad years.”