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Brought to you by The Developing Librarian team at Columbia University

Laying the Foundations

Topography of  Morningside Heights and its immediate surroundings in 1865, taken from a larger map.

Detail of Egbert L. Viele's Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York (1865), showing the narrow parameters of the future Morningside Heights, visible at the top of the map next to the Hudson River, with the valley of Manhattanville to the right and the broad plain of Harlem extending below it in the picture.

New York Hospital Purchases on Morningside Heights, 1815-1820.

Section of 1891 Bromley Atlas of New York City, edited to show the original land purchases of New York Hospital on the Heights, 1816-1821.

In retrospect, it seems surprising that the final location for the Bloomingdale had not been the hospital governors' first choice.  In moving to this space, they had literally seized the high ground. 

As the adjacent detail from an 1865 map makes clear, the neighborhood is sharply circumscribed by its topography.  A narrow outcropping at the northern end of the ridge extending up the West Side to Harlem valley, with sheer cliffs on the east and steep slopes on the west and north, the plateau offers only a limited space at the top.  It is also  the highest point on Manhattan south of 155th street, offering, in the early days, unrestricted vistas of the Hudson, Harlem plain, the Harlem and East Rivers, and the island of Manhattan itself stretching back toward the city of New York. (The subsequent vertical growth of the surrounding real estate makes it  somewhat harder to appreciate this fact today.)

The level area at the top of the ridge is fairly small, amounting to just about a quarter of a square mile.  The purchase of two large plots of land by New York Hospital in 1816 and 1820 in an effort to create a new home for its lunatic asylum seized a significant portion of that space, as the second map on this page illustrates.  Moreover, the program of the asylum, with its needs for a large and ultimately enclosed space, where residents could find a secure and peaceful retreat, like that of the adjacent Leake and Watts Orphan House (to which New York Hospital sold a section of its original purchase in the 1830s), discouraged the kind of varied residential and commercial development that took place in adjacent parts of Manhattan in the 19th century, and made it easy at the end of the century, when another large institution, Columbia University and its affiliates were looking for extensive pieces of real estate into which they could place their growing physical plant, A similar role would later be played by the property of the Convent of the Sacred Heart just north of Manhattan valley, which provided a partial landing space for the City College campus.

As noted already, the move of the asylum to the Heights can be seen as part of the larger process by which major institutions have leapfrogged northward as the center of the growing city has moved further and further uptown.  A similar story can be told of Columbia University, the New York Hospital itself, the Catholic cathedral, the public library, and many others institutions. The asylum, however, with its pressing need for "peace and quiet," took larger leaps to escape the clamor of urban life.  (Its next move after the Heights would be out of the city entirely, to White Plains.)  

Morningside Heights today is home to collection of leading educational, religious, cultural, and healthcare institutions.  The name "Academic Acropolis" is sometimes used to describe it.  That character owes much to the domination of the space, in the early 19th century, by the Bloomingdale Asylum.