Volume 16 • Issue 25 |November 18 - 24, 2003

Columbia comes back Downtown for ceremony

By Sascha Brodsky

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

Lee Bollinger, left, president of Columbia University and The Rev. Dr. Daniel Paul Matthews, rector of Trinity Church, with a plaque the institutions gave to the city marking the university’s first home on land donated by the church.

Columbia University’s president called for a return to spiritual life in a ceremony last week bringing the school back to its roots in Lower Manhattan.

The university “struggles about how to search for truth in a world where an absence of a spiritual life makes the search for truth meaningless” said university president Lee Bollinger. “What really is the relationship between the secular search for truth and the spiritual is …one of the most profound human dilemmas that we face.”

Bollinger spoke at a ceremony Thursday at Trinity Church, which gave rise to the school that would become Columbia. The university is celebrating its 250th anniversary.

Columbia’s rise as one of the country’s best universities has mirrored New York’s rise as a city, said historian Kenneth Jackson at the ceremony.

More than two centuries ago, “The land seemed to have little value,” added Jackson, who is head of the New York Historical Society. “It was swampy, the home of tanneries. In 1754 when Trinity gave King’s College its start, New York was still not very impressive.”

In 1752, the vestry of Trinity Parish agreed to donate land for a new college to be administered by ten trustees appointed by the General Assembly of the Province of New York. Two years later, the first class of students entering King’s College was instructed in temporary quarters in the schoolhouse at Trinity Church, located on what is now the south side of Rector St., midway between Broadway and Trinity Place. On October 31, 1754, Columbia University was founded as King’s College by royal charter of England’s King George II.

In 1760, King’s College moved to its own building on land donated by Trinity on Park Place. Renamed Columbia College in 1784 after the American Revolution, it remained on Park Pl. until 1857, when it relocated to 49th St. and Madison Ave. The college stayed in Midtown until 1897, when it moved to its current home in Morningside Heights.

Since its founding, Columbia has produced about 60 Nobel Prize winners, Jackson said. Bollinger said that far from being an elitist institution, Columbia has been inextricably linked with New York, adding that 15 of the city’s mayors have been Columbia graduates.

“The sense of exhilaration of being part of the making of this metropolis is very, very great,” Bollinger said.

The service featured a medley of music of Columbia University lyricists and composers, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein, performed by Trinity Choir. The Rev. Dr. Daniel Paul Matthews, rector of Trinity Church, and Bollinger presented a commemorative plaque to the city, designating the birthplace of Columbia at Trinity Church. The plaque was installed permanently in the wall surrounding Trinity’s churchyard on the north side of Rector St.

“Today Trinity and Columbia have … flourished in this bracing and demanding environment even as they contribute to it,” said Professor Robert McCaughey of Barnard College, author of “Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University.”

Bollinger said the university still shares the sense of mission imbued by Trinity Church.

“This university and church share many things,” he said. “It began with a sense of the combination of a spiritual life and the search for truth that continue to be foundations of life to this day. We have taken somewhat different paths. I know that it is a deep part of your identity to continue the search for truth.”

Carl Weisbrod, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, asked Bollinger to consider building a branch of Columbia in Lower Manhattan.

“I hope you will keep us in mind for a new outpost in the new burgeoning Downtown,” Weisbrod said. “As Kenneth Jackson would say, past is prologue.”

Bollinger did not reply directly to Weisbrod’s suggestion.


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