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Exhibits Exploring the Transformation of Morningside Heights, 1820-1950

This set of exhibits and document collections highlights some of the most important and distinctive aspects of Morningside Heights transformation by documenting the construction and expansion of its key sites. It also narrates some of the history of the institutions that moved to the neighborhood, and the moves themselves. Visitors can view maps, photographs, architectural drawings, newspaper clippings, postcards, and other materials, all of which provide an intimate look at specific moments and places in the creation of modern Morningside Heights.

For much of the 19th century, Morningside Heights was dominated by the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, whose central building rose between 1818 and 1821, on the same spot where Low Library would be constructed in 1896-7, and by Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, built in 1843, located on the grounds where both the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Luke’s Hospital would later rise. The largely open grounds of the asylum and home ensured that for a long time, even as the neighborhoods surrounding it were rapidly urbanizing, Morningside Heights would retain a quiet, almost rural character.

Yet despite remaining a world apart, the neighborhood’s borders did witness some significant growth in line with that of the city at large, with commercial establishments such as the Lion Brewery and many bars, restaurants and entertainment venues opening up along Morningside’s southern 110th St. border. The arrival of a permanent firehouse on 113th St. in 1891 (Engine Company No. 47) reflected these developments.

On the neighborhood’s western border, Riverside Drive and Riverside Park (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) were developed beginning in the 1870s to encourage settlement further north. These projects prompted the construction of elegant modern apartment buildings for wealthy residents.

The rapid development of Manhattan in the latter decades of the 19th century pushed real estate values up to such a level that by the 1880s it became increasingly untenable for Morningside Heights’ primary institutional landowners to continue their domination of the neighborhood. This process would be greatly accelerated with the construction of the New York City subway system, and the opening of the IRT’s 116th St.-Columbia University station in 1904. The critical moment for the neighborhood’s future came when the decision was made to sell the properties, not to commercial developers or other private commercial interests, but to two correspondingly large institutions that would enable Morningside Heights to retain a distinctive character for the foreseeable future. Columbia College, then located in midtown Manhattan, acquired most of the land of the Bloomingdale site in 1892, while the Episcopal Church acquired the property belonging to Leake and Watts in order to construct a new cathedral (St. John the Divine) and a relocated St. Luke’s Hospital

Columbia’s move to the neighborhood was accompanied by the establishment of both Teachers College and Barnard College, which moved near Columbia’s new properties not long after they were founded, and soon became affiliated with Columbia. Union Theological Seminary and the Institute of Musical Art (later reorganized and named the Juilliard School of Music) followed the others soon after. In the late 1920s the Jewish Theological Seminary became the final institutional tenant to join the neighborhood. These helped permanently solidify Morningside Heights’ academic identity. The period of transformation for Morningside Heights would end in the 1930s with the completion of the Riverside Church and associated buildings, as well as the addition of new buildings on an expanding Columbia University campus, most notably South Hall in 1934 (later renamed Butler Library). At this point, the neighborhood had acquired the physical form that it has largely retained to this day. Morningside Heights became not only a home for a university, schools, seminaries and churches, but also a largely middle class residential neighborhood.