Signs of the Times

by Elizabeth Manus
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I f the path to enlightenment begins with the mapping of the stars, as the ancient astronomers taught, students standing in the vestibule of Low Library for the first time are well-positioned — although they might not notice it.

To be fair, one would expect a celestial representation to be displayed high up, perhaps on the ceiling. But in the atrium of Low, one must look downward to see the heavens. There, in the floor, encircling the fluted pedestal of Athena like a hammered belt of light, and partly obscured by rubber mats, lies a familiar-looking configuration: the signs of the zodiac, artfully rendered in eight panels in a marble mosaic.

To the modern observer, these brass bas-reliefs, worn flat by a century of foot traffic, might spark thoughts of The Secret Language of Birthdays or tabloid advice about whose letters to burn. But students entering the library on the first day of classes in early October 1897 knew just what the signs embodied. “The zodiac represents the cosmos,” says Barry Bergdoll, professor of architectural history at Columbia and the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, “and the quest to encompass in a single building the sum total of knowledge.”

What the students would not likely have known — and what few know today — was how much attention had been devoted to bringing the zodiac to the library.

Seth Low himself, his wife Annie Curtis Low, the University’s Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim, ironmaster John Williams, a marble worker named E. B. Tompkins, and members of a Special Committee all collaborated, by way of letters, meetings, resolutions, and votes, to situate the reliefs in the building.

What was really occurring was a relocation, because the signs had been created for McKim’s New York State Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They were cast by Williams, a Manhattan smithy whose shop was renowned for its hand-forged work, and one possible destination after the World’s Fair was McKim’s Boston Public Library. Instead, Williams helped steer them to the center of the newly named Columbia University.

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