Signs of the Times

by Elizabeth Manus
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In a September 1896 letter to Low, a very pleased McKim wrote that Williams and his friend Tompkins, “knowing my desire to secure this pavement for the Library,” had offered to donate, set, and present it gratis to the University. “The octagonal frame . . . as by a miracle, exactly fits the space between the steps of approach leading to the President’s room on one side and the Trustees on the other,” he wrote.

McKim’s interests extended much further than the line between these two rooms, according to Bergdoll. The architect’s expertise referred to the French academic tradition of the late 18th and 19th centuries and a history of thinking about ways to unify a processional axis with iconography of knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge.

“The zodiac is traditional in libraries in general and in Beaux-Arts libraries in particular,” Bergdoll says. “Low Library is the center of the campus universe, and the zodiac is in the center of the vestibule, as kind of prelude to the dome. You come into the building, walk over the zodiac — over the celestial sphere — through the marble columns, and are drawn to the light in the rotunda. The dome is painted blue. Originally there was hanging from the dome a glass sphere, and the dome was painted with stars. This celestial theme runs through the iconography of the building, enhanced for many years by the sundial placed on an axis with the library on the other side of 116th Street — College Walk — a link between the two halves of the campus.”

In the 1890s, visitors to Low would have grasped the reference. “Educated people understood what these things symbolized,” says Andrew Dolkart, the James Marston Fitch Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “People knew how to look. It was part of society. You were trained to be well versed in classical knowledge.”

In other words, nobody on “the Acropolis of America,” as Morningside Heights was known, had to explain the zodiac or point out that Athena was the goddess of wisdom.

Yet even though the zodiac circle and the bust of Athena signaled Low’s (or perhaps only McKim’s) allegiance to Periclean Athens, Columbia had recently abandoned Greek as an admission requirement. True, freshmen were still required to take Greek and Latin, and rhetoric was still a required course for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, but the new way in pointed to a new way out — a different kind of literacy, epitomized by the expansion of the college into a university.

“Being versed in classicism is the old idea that a perfect education was a classical education,” Dolkart says. “We have a much broader notion of what education is today. We have a broader, more open view of what an educated individual is.”

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