Awaiting an Audience
Looking up at the greenhouse atop Milbank.
By Molly Murch
Delicately guarded by crystal panes, the third iteration of greenhouses at Barnard is an airy observatory that has become the subject of admiration from high schoolers looking skyward during their campus tour. Despite the fascination of prospective students, current Barnardians largely ignore Milbank’s shiny glass addition and the verdant world inside it. I myself, after nearly two years on campus, only made my first visit this year when the Admissions Office sent its tour guides up there on a mandatory (and successful) de-stressing field trip following the overturn of Roe v. Wade. A quick survey of my friends (only a decently reliable sample) suggests that about half of Barnard students have never taken a step through the inconspicuous fourth floor door leading up to the rickety staircase. But I’d argue the glistening greenhouse hovering over Barnard’s oldest building deserves an MTV Cribs–style audience.
A chasm exists between those who revere the space but lack a valid Barnard ID and those who frequent Milbank but walk right by its buzzer opposite the women’s restrooms. Perhaps students’ failure to visit the Arthur Ross Greenhouse can be explained by the reality of being a college student bogged down by commitments and GCal invitations, simply unable to find the time to meander up there. For many, their first greenhouse visit is, as Greenhouse Manager Nick Gershberg puts it, “in their cap and gown on the day of their Columbia graduation.”
Despite trends, there does remain a dedicated inner circle of greenhouse goers; Nick and a crew of eight to 10 student workers are responsible for watering, pruning, and seemingly constantly cleaning the space. They prepare tirelessly for classes’ academic exploration, occasional independent research projects, scavenger hunts, and for twice-weekly open hours. The undeniable love they have for the space leaves them disappointed to know not everyone shares similar greenhouse mileage.
For Tamia Lewis, BC ’24, working in the greenhouse—“hands in the soil” as she describes it—gives her a place to engage with nature and its “warmth” despite attending a city school. She is an environmental science major, but students from a variety of backgrounds and majors contribute to the team. Introduced to the greenhouse on her campus tour, Lewis strategically arranges her schedule to allow for morning shifts at least four or five days a week: “If I went straight to class, I would just continue to be completely in my brain, and this kind of brings me back into my body.”
While the team’s day-to-day efforts ensure the greenhouse is a fully operational laboratory-meets-playground, their ultimate goal is hopefully to bridge the gap that keeps students oblivious to the greenhouse and its peculiarities. Gershberg cites a common experience visitors have in the greenhouse: the “moment where you are with these specimens and something happens inside that sparks your curiosity—and in a lot of ways, your empathy.”
For the Barnard and Columbia community, the Arthur Ross Greenhouse hovers somewhere between fantastical, uncharted territory and the deepest, earthiest reality. The plants it houses are, for some, objects of spectacle or imaginary, floating ecosystems, and for others, subjects of pure scientific research or creatures gently loved and tended to. Adored by its curators but left yearning for greater audiences, the greenhouse remains quietly perched atop Milbank, rising above the treetops, sunbathing through the final days of fall.