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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Where Windows Gaze at Walls

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Grove.

By Sam Hosmer

At twilight on a partly cloudy day, climb six Low Steps and turn around so that scars of vivid sunset cast Alma Mater’s crown into silhouette and shade Butler and South Lawn with violet. This is Columbia’s brand identity.

We relish it. It fills our camera rolls and frames our Instagram stories. In hospitable weather, we crowd the lawns encircled by limestone and brick. Administrators confer degrees flanked by time-weathered balustrades and Low’s 10 stately columns. During those moments when we feel grateful to be here, campus is the shape of our pride; when the institution lets us down, it is the environment for our frustrations. 

But then, this was always the point. In Mastering McKim’s Plan, Columbia art history professor Barry Bergdoll argues that “architecture was both a vital tool in Columbia’s reinvention of itself as an urban research university and a reflection of the trustees’ new determination to abandon years of ad hoc problem solving.” As University president Seth Low and architect Charles Follen McKim began to formulate campus’s first architectural principles in the late 19th century, they established the materials, scales, and symmetries that would become the University’s institutional face.

Today, the results seem to speak for themselves: Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus is an internationally recognized landmark—the school’s website and emails are anchored by images of its buildings and idyllic lawns; Alma Mater caps the walls of the 116th St. subway station and stares imperiously away from our names on our student IDs. Some 130 years after Low and McKim turned to architecture to define Columbia University, that architecture is among its most valuable assets.

But the surfaces and structures of campus are not as consistent as these vignettes would have you believe. As anyone who has spent time here knows, as you move north, past the walls of craggy concrete that cast the staircase of Dodge Fitness Center into shadow, the aesthetic, so unified and resolute just moments ago, seems to fray. The ground underfoot changes from herringbone brick to long strips of utilitarian decking. Entryways become spare and walkways claustrophobic. Above-ground vestibules, humming with machinery, squat beside exhaust pipes that belch clouds of steam. It is a stark change.

And then, in two areas to the east and west, this elevated level of campus simply ends.

One of these chasms is behind Schermerhorn Hall, and the other is behind Havemeyer Hall. Both are guarded by railings that do not invite casual viewership. If you glance over them, you will see people in uniform pushing carts, yelling directions, and commuting from basement to basement on street-level expanses of uninterrupted asphalt. Bulging dumpsters accumulate trash. Every surface, pipe, duct, and doorknob is coated with a thick patina of rugged use. And above all of this, on the incongruously decorative southern walls of each of these spaces, stand rows of monumental windows that gaze only at walls.

These two holes in the fabric of campus permit a rebellious view of the “Grove”: a parallel dimension that, although enshrouded by the surfaces and structures above it, underlies all of campus. It chills our water, generates our steam, and coordinates our climate control. Pipes and cables deliver utilities to our buildings through warrens of winding, ragged tunnels. Research chemicals, lab equipment, and other packages arrive here first, later becoming the garbage that fills its dumpsters. And, arising from the Grove’s clandestine garages and workshops, vital members of Columbia’s facilities departments are forever engaged in the rigorous, ad-hoc tasks of cosmetic and mechanical upkeep required to preserve the visual identity McKim and Low invented in 1894. 

In addition to yielding a peek behind the scenes, these incidental spaces in North Campus also manifest a dense and layered archaeology, divulged in the form of palimpsests, anachronisms, and windows that gaze at walls. These clues tell the architectural story of Columbia’s century on Morningside Heights, and of how far the University has gone to make things look easy.

McKim’s plan, though prescriptive in attitude and broad in scale, is perhaps equally defined by how little of it was actually realized. Low Library, the centerpiece of McKim’s design, was roundly criticized by a student body that found it sacrificed function for idealized proportions and symmetries—“‘Library’ Is a Misnomer for Edifice Designed for Benefit of Sightseers,” grouses a 1925 Columbia Spectator editorial—so Butler was built shortly thereafter. Then came the construction of University Hall, an opulent student center McKim envisioned for the space behind Low Library. Columbia’s funding was exhausted after only one floor, rendering it unfinished for five decades. And only one of the many fully surrounded academic courtyards McKim had planned—between Avery, Fayerweather, St. Paul’s Chapel, and Schermerhorn—was ever realized. 

But the erosion of his larger vision belies a much more familiar and stubborn set of rules: Buildings would obey a common material palette of granite, red brick, and limestone; central campus would sit on a plinth above the neighborhood; expansive terraces of hardscape would define its vistas and choreograph movement across them. In the century that followed, these core visual hallmarks became canonical.

So when new buildings began to deviate more brazenly from that scripture, the dissenting structures gained a reputation among students as canonically ugly. After the Seeley W. Mudd Building was finished as a new home for SEAS in 1961, the Spectator called it “sad,” “repulsive,” and an “irreparable mistake”; when crews broke ground for Uris, students picketed it with signs that read “No More Mudds.” Once it was finished, the Spectator called Uris “an excretion” and “a monumental offense,” concluding that “it should be demolished with all the violence it has committed upon its surroundings.”

Curiously, however, even campus’s most apparently heretical 20th-century additions betray the lasting influences of McKim’s original plan. Mudd, long hated for its austerity, is nonetheless clad in red brick and trimmed with granite and a limestone-like material. The Sherman Fairchild Center, which was added to Mudd in 1978, is covered in a screen of large, metallically bordered rectangular panels inset with quarry tiles, abstracting McKim’s bricks and mortar. Even Uris, a building notorious for its seeming rejection of McKim’s aesthetics is—in addition to being clad primarily in limestone—literally built on top of the four-story basement of University Hall. As a result, its library follows the curvature of University Hall’s recognizable rotunda.

All of these projects understood the need to express some recognizable aspect of the brand identity, even if practical requirements or restrictions made them defy other parts of it. Thus McKim’s scriptures had relaxed into a handbook of superficial aesthetic choices. But as each building began to impose its own interpretation of that visual identity, inconsistencies emerged.

There are a few ways to enter the depths of North Campus, in which all those monumental windows gaze at walls. On Broadway and Amsterdam, two entrances, used by trucks and service vehicles, access it directly. These are monitored by security guards and aren’t always available to pedestrians. Otherwise, it is easiest to get there through back doors in the basements of Havemeyer and Schermerhorn, beyond which the stenciled lettering on its dumpsters assigns this shadowy realm a name: “The Grove.”

Officially, the Grove is a small, paved, street-level courtyard behind Schermerhorn, which Columbia calls its “central waste management and recycling facility.” In practice, the name refers to the entire hidden catacomb that snakes from Amsterdam to Broadway. 

Like Mudd and Uris, it is often the butt of mean jokes, which in this case usually contrast its bucolic name with the fact that it processes garbage. WikiCU, the internet’s primary archive of Columbia snark, calls it a “crude joke” that “emits a foul odor of decay,” while Bwog calls it a “human scale trash can.” A 2019 episode of Spectator’s podcast accuses the “so-called Grove” of being “strange, grimy, and a little spooky.” It was even called a “hellish, stinking pit” 12 years ago in the pages of this magazine. 

What is it about the Grove that provokes such brutal wrath? If we’re to take these critics at their word, it is that it looks and smells bad. But the real reason, once again, is an unearned nostalgia for McKim’s plan, where the Grove began life as the “Green": an expansive landscape at the north end of campus, past the late University Hall, dotted with trees and tastefully cultivated vegetation, surrounded by an ornate fence, sliced by diagonal gravel pathways, and furnished with a bandstand and a statue of the Great God Pan. Also prominent in the Green’s design, though often elided by those nostalgists, was a curving, promenade-like driveway that cut across its lawns and bore through the first floor of University Hall.

Regular inserts in Spectator report the Green filling to capacity for commencement and summer concerts; Bergdoll quotes Frederick Law Olmsted’s prediction that it would “one day be the pride of the University and of the city.” By the mid-1920s, however, prodigious institutional growth had exceeded the capacity of McKim’s original design for campus. In response, Nicholas Murray Butler, president since 1901, began commissioning campus plans that contemplated aggressive but systematic expansion into much taller buildings on the remainder of the Morningside site. The first and only building to emerge from these orderly schemes was Pupin Physics Laboratories, completed in 1927 within the Green’s northwest corner. 

Pupin was designed by McKim, and thus its materials, proportions, and symmetries were overtly faithful to his master plan, despite the building’s unprecedented scale. And, after it was completed, the Green below still ostensibly existed, its gravel paths rearranged to lead to Pupin’s front door.

Yet after Pupin, the Green’s fate grew increasingly grim, as did any notions of its methodical and organized development. In 1961, the construction of Mudd and the attached Engineering Terrace covered almost all of its acreage on its eastern side. On the Green’s western side, Columbia completed a “Computer Center” between Havemeyer and Uris in 1962. Then, Dodge Fitness Center was built behind Havemeyer in the early 70s as a hasty concession to the protests of 1968, filling in the last large parcel of original Green and raising Pupin’s entrance to the fifth floor. (This all subjected the Great God Pan to a series of relocations, ultimately depositing him on the lawn between Lewisohn and Low.) 

Once the unpardonably named Schapiro CEPSR and then the Northwest Corner Building were finished in 1992 and 2010, none of the Green’s once-leafy landscape remained. 

In its place, Columbia had incrementally erected an enmeshed and unwieldy superstructure. Dodge, the Computer Center, Mudd’s terraces, and warrens of tunnels and service buildings all sat below what was now campus level, their roofs adjoining to form the courtyard between North Campus’ towers. Only two small, awkward regions of the Green behind Schermerhorn and Havemeyer survived, each paved over to allow access to that service driveway—which, too vital to reconfigure or replace, was instead encased and buried. No longer green, these areas are now called the Grove. Together, they are Columbia’s root system.

Meanwhile, only the visual tokens of McKim’s plan retained any purchase with these buildings, reducing any coherence between them to pure surface. Other than that, it would seem that the only common logic of the development of North Campus was to hide its driveway and service areas below campus level, where nobody could unintentionally see them. By physically and figuratively privileging its surfaces over the processes and people who maintain them, Columbia had permanently encoded a literal spatial hierarchy. 

In other words, from campus we can only look down on the Grove, and some of us may even have the audacity to insult it.

In my reconnaissance for this piece, I spent a lot of time in the Grove. As I walked its length, I imagined manicured lawns stretching to my left and right, and it was then that I began to sense the original architectural coherence of the Green—before its gestures were permanently fractured by increasingly erratic vertical and horizontal expansions.

Without this context, at the Grove’s eastern and western ends—where its chambered depths are opened to North Campus and sunlight is allowed in for a few hours—the monumental windows and decorative exterior walls of Schermerhorn and Havemeyer’s basements seem misplaced and inexplicable. They do, after all, look directly onto piles of garbage. But inside the Green, these rusticated walls were the figurative plinths on which the rest of campus rested, completing a picturesque panorama. And the Green’s lack of buildings would likely have welcomed plenty of morning light, explaining those windows that now gaze only at walls.

As the amount of time I spent in the Grove became inordinate, I started to recognize faces. I soon befriended Louis Feraca, who works for the Landscaping and Grounds department of Facilities and Operations and is around my age. Feraca and I happened to share a passion for campus history: When we first met, we found that we both had albums of before-and-after archival photos stored in our camera rolls, and we spent half an hour swapping them.

A few days later, Feraca agreed to let me follow him around the Grove for a couple of hours at the end of his workday.

“So, yeah. Here we have everything, from food deliveries to all the cafeterias,” Feraca says, gesturing at a garage door that is rolled shut. “We have a bunch of mechanic shops here, students going to the gym, trucks in and out, bringing garbage from everywhere.”

As we talk, we are in a section of the road that is deep underneath Uris. We walk past a cage that is full of cardboard boxes and is informatively labeled “BALLASTS.” The walls are a porridgy beige, but beneath the paint, the ghosts of former doorways are visible in the brickwork.

Feraca gestures towards me to follow him down the driveway. “And over here is our shop. Just for Grounds.”

We walk in and he turns on the lights far above, revealing several yards of shelving bays holding the attachments they use to groom campus. It smells like a Home Depot. On the cinderblock wall to my right, there is a whiteboard with assignments and a union sticker.

“So, does everybody have their own shop down here?” I ask.

Yes, he replies, but not just down here: “B230,” beneath the International Affairs Building, houses campus’s carpentry, plumbing, and electrical outfits. Trying to understand their scope and responsibilities, I describe a hypothetical scenario based on an incident I vaguely remember from when I was a sophomore, in which a serial burglar kept stealing herringbone bricks from walkways, leaving cavities everywhere. (“That was you?” he asks, and I’m not sure if he’s joking.)

He tells me that, in such a situation, a service order would get issued for that particular brick. Once the relevant shop fabricated a replacement or located one in its stores, a supervisor would task someone in Feraca’s department with installing it. 

“There are a bunch of different shops behind this door,” he says, as we leave his shop and continue moving through the Grove. “HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] is downstairs. Obviously, the boiler room mechanics, the chiller shop mechanics—anything you need for a campus to be running, you know, we have it.”

I ask him what the boiler mechanics do, knowing nothing about boilers, and lacking even the faintest conception of what a chiller shop is. 

“In the boiler room,” Feraca tells me, “there’s somebody there 24/7. Watching its computers, lights, signals, making sure the pressure is correct. Now, custodians, they have their own closet-type room in each building. So, of course, they have a room in the basement with all the medical supplies…”

I tell him that it feels like we’re in the beating mechanical heart of the University, and he agrees.

Before coming to Columbia, Feraca spent a few years as a delivery driver for Poland Springs, delivering water all around the New York metropolitan area—including to our campus, whose architecture had fascinated him since his childhood in the Bronx. So, when a position opened up with Grounds, he was quick to snag it. Though there are always Facilities and Operations posts available elsewhere, some less grueling, he tells me that he chooses to stay here because of all the history. I’m excited to realize, as he shows me a photo from the 1920s in which the stairs of Hamilton Hall bear a chip still visible today, that he approaches history like I do: by locating in our present spaces the overlooked, trivial details preserved from their pasts.

I ask Feraca if there’s anything he wants to say to those who now use Columbia’s campus, and he responds: “Appreciate where you’re standing, because it’s a piece of history.” 

Feraca is fascinated by the life of the architecture that he loves, its details and transformations, but he is also responsible for stewarding its mystique. McKim and his interpreters may have created Columbia’s architectural identity, but Feraca and his colleagues in the Grove are recreating it every day, in little ways, like the Ship of Theseus. The heights and depths of campus are two sides of a battle between theory and praxis, in which theory strains desperately to hide praxis far below.

As we keep walking, I look up and observe that the ceiling and everything attached to it has been painted black, which serves to camouflage a web of pipes, conduits, and other things that exceed the range of my technical knowledge. We both note and take photos of three dead pigeons, clustered and deteriorating on the ground. 

Then, dressing the upper reaches of this enclosed road full of pallet crates, mulch bags, and empty garbage bins, I notice that the paint is also disguising a well-preserved but entirely out of place crown dentil molding.

I suddenly realize that we are not underneath Uris, but rather University Hall. Archival photos of campus facing south from 120th Street—in which a monumental, rusticated, four-floor foundation supports the single bald story of its main structure, bearing a conspicuous resemblance to a steamboat—reveal that this driveway, back when it still curved through the Green, was greeted at ground level by a thick arch of chamfered granite blocks built into either side of the first floor of University Hall.

While Uris officially replaced University Hall, only its top floor, a cafeteria, was actually demolished. The four stories below it, containing the University’s gym, weren’t touched. Today, these four semicircular floors are part of Dodge Fitness Center, containing the basketball courts, “Tri-Level Fitness Area” (three narrow hallways with some weightlifting equipment), indoor running track, and the locker rooms. The next time you are unlucky enough to find yourself in the Tri-Level Fitness Area, you will see that a few frosted windows span all three of its Tri-Levels. They are dark, because they now gaze only at a wall. But in old photos, they bathe the floor of the gym in morning sunshine.

So University Hall—or at least 80% of it—survives to the present day, albeit almost entirely buried beneath the haphazard growth of North Campus. As a result, the remains of that imposing granite arch, I now understand, are right in front of Feraca and me: The five stacked granite blocks flanking us are the arch’s unsquashed lower extremities, awkwardly protruding from the ceiling and the unadorned walls. 

I AirDrop a picture of University Hall to Feraca, and then we ascend to talk about the history of the buildings all around us. What I like about New York, I tell him, is that its intractable shortage of physical space forces structure and infrastructure to intermingle, one endlessly shaping the other in funny and inspiring and sad ways.

And then, as we walk across North Campus, I notice that its surface doesn’t quite meet the northeast wall of Uris Hall’s rotunda, creating a narrow subterranean crevice between campus level and the building’s edge. Feraca asks me if I’ve ever stared into it, and as I then stand on the parapet and peer into this incision, I notice a core sample of the University’s archaeology: layers of erratic expansion fossilized into chronological strata. In this narrow space, membranous staircases and rugged metal service doors tease the possibility of a hidden underbelly. Contrasting materials clash in strange tapestries. And below the above-ground rotunda, on the rusticated rear wall of University Hall now permanently entombed in this hidden canyon, a row of monumental windows gazes only at a wall. 

It suggests that all is not what it seems.

Illustration by Emma Finkelstein


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