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Brought to you by The Developing Librarian team at Columbia University

The Bloomingdale Departs

Bloomingdale Asylum in White Plains

Photograph of the new Bloomingdale Asylum campus in White Plains, from the 1894 Annual Report of New York Hospital.

Hermann H. Cammann

Portrait of Hermann Cammann, member of the Board of Govenors of New York Hospital, real estate man,chief negotiator for the sale of the Bloomingdale property, and later, trustee of Columbia University 

Columbia University Campus circa 1903

Postcard of the Columbia campus ca. 1903.  The newly opened 116th Street is visible, as is a fragment of the panoramic view of the Hudson.  Low Library, standing on the site of the old main Bloomingdale building with some remaining Bloomingdale buildings visible.

Bloomingdale Asylum, 1834

Idealized picture of the Bloomingdale Asylum's main building painted and then engraved for the New York Mirror.  Note the glimpse of the Hudson River in the background.

Having lost its battle to remain on Morningside Heights, the Bloomingdale departed for a new (and long anticipated) home in White Plains, where it continues to exist to this day as Payne Whitney Westchester, still part of the New York Hospital.  The real estate developers and Democratic politicans who had fought to dislodge it, however, were equally thwarted in their plan to turn this scenic site into a residential neighborhood. 

Instead, in rapid succession, major parts of the land on the Heights were acquired by a series of major institutions: the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1887), Columbia University (1892), Teachers College (1892), St. Luke's Hospital (1892), and Barnard College (1895). Columbia's intial purchase comprised the Bloomingdale campus north of the now opened 116th Street, and Barnard bought a tract of largely undeveloped land owned by the hospital between 119th and 120th.  Both went back for a second installment in 1903, when the Hospital decided to sell of all its remaining land on the Heights, Barnard purchasing another undeveloped piece between 119th and 116th, and Columbia purchasing the downtown half of the old Blomingdale campus between 116th and 114th. The Cathedral purchased its land from the Leake and Watts Orphan asylum, which was on the northern part of the tract purchased by New York Hospital for the future lunatic asylum in 1815 and sold to the orphanage in the 1830s.[1]

The value of the land had grown considerably.  Columbia paid 2 million dollars for the land between 116th and 120th and 1.9 million for the piece between 116th and 114th in 1903. 

The large swathes of land that the New York Hospital had acquired and that had then been occupied by the Bloomingdale and Leak and Watts, preserving large tracts with no cross streets, proved an ideal and indeed, beautiful new environment for three of these leading social institutions -- Columbia, Barnard, and the Cathedral -- and the the decision of Teachers College to locate on adjacent land, was certainly related to Columbia's decision. 

Was it all just a happy coincidence?  The two researchers who have looked most closely at this question, David Rosner and Andrew Dolkart, differ slightly in the interpretations.  Rosner argues that New York Hospital and Columbia were consciously working together in the purchase of the University's land to preserve "the long-term hegemony of the elite" over this very special part of Manhattan, defending it in particular against the potential arrival of densely populated, lower class neighborhoods full of immigrant Tammany voters like the ones that had grown up in the eastern parts of the 12th Ward and some lower parts of the West Side.[2] Dolkart is a little skeptical of this view, suggesting that more unconscious market forces and economic opportunities played a greater role.[3]

Both arguments have some real merit.  Dolkart correctly notes that there is no concrete evidence of such a collusion.  Columbia had not even officially begun searching for a new campus site until 1891, and the Hospital's asking price for its land was in fact a very hard one for the University to swallow.  

Nonetheless, Rosner clearly defines a social and attitudinal topography across which the forces of the market were likely to flow in a particular direction.  Certainly, the Trustees of Columbia and the Governors of the Hospital belonged to same social, political, and cultural world.  They descended from the same kinds of families, belonged to the same clubs, had many business connections, served collectively on the same kinds of corporate and philanthropic boards, were overwhelmingly of the Protestant (and particularly Episcopalian) faith and Republican republican political persuasion. Figures like Olmstead, Bixby, and the Tammany politicians were likely to be an object of distaste to both groups.  It is worth remembering that Seth Low almost resigned as president of Columbia to run as a reform Republican candidate for mayor against the Tammany machine.[4]  After the struggles of the 1880s, as Doklart notes the governors of the hospital would hardly have been enthusiastic about breaking up their land into residential units that would be welcome to real estate speculators.  Indeed, even after they made their first round of sales in the 1890s, they kept the two large tracts later bought by Barnard and Columbia in 1903 in one piece, seemingly suggesting a preference on their part for large institutional buyers.

In this light, the eleventh-hour attempt of state senator and Tammany man George Washington Plunckett to have 119th Street cut through across the Bloomingdale property, when the University was already raising money to buy it, might be seen as final shot from the battles of the 1880s, a grudge match growing out of two very different and competing visions of New York City.[5] It seems striking as well that the property of a institution whose own confessional leanings were episcopalian would come to be occupied and surrounded by the lands of three major episcopal institutions.  Interestingly, John R. Pine, the chief promoter and impresario of Columbia's move to Morningside, cautioned the trustees not to draw too much attention to the fact that this Episcopal college would be moving up alongside the Episcopal cathedral.[6]

The hospital Board of Governor and the university or Board of Trustees drew closer together in these years.  There had always been a few Columbia graduates on the hospital board, alongside a few Harvard and Yale men.  (Many of the trustees governors did not have college degrees.) There were three in the late 1880s: James W. Beekman, William W. Hoppin, Jr., and Elbridge Gerry, who had played such a key role in defending against the real estate interests. The ties would grow much closer in the years following the Bloomingdale's decision to move away.  While the two boards had long been very similar in composition, with many of the same kinds of people and even same families represented on each, there does not seem to have been, prior to 1890, an instance of an individual serving simultaneously on each.  However, Hermann H. Cammann, John Pine's New York Hospital counterpart in the negotiations for purchase of the Bloomingdale and one of the few real estate men on the board of governors, was also elected subsequently as a Columbia trustee.  At the same time, a number of additional Columbia alumni were elected to the hospital board of governors -- George G. DeWitt (1890), William A Duer (1890), George G. Haven (1891), Fordham Morris (1891), and Edmund D. Randolph (1890).[7]

The Bloomingdale is gone from Morningside today, but the close observer can still detect traces of its spatial presence on the Columbia campus.  The main campus quadrangle itself preserves the asylum grounds in their entirety, and the university won, in a sense, the asylum's last battle on the Heights in 1953, by achieving the closure of 116th Street to cross traffic once again.  The university's architectural complex has, over the years, taken on many of the lineaments of the old.  The new central building, Low Library, not surprisingly, took up the position of the old main building at the peak of the ridge in 1896,  McKim, Mead and White's staircase and balustrades providing a dramatic treatment of the hillside on which it stands.  For a number of years, many of the other asylum buildings continued to surround it, Green Memorial Hall serving as a classroom building for a few years, and the Superintendent's House as the Faculty Club, although only, the old Macy Villa remains today as Buell Hall, moved from its original position and shorn of its verandas,. The density of structures is reminiscent of the old Bloomingdale grounds as well, with a much larger number of buildings clustered at the upper end of the campus, with a large open field, albeit one surrounded by tall buildings, remaining on the southern half of the campus.

The postcard image of the new Columbia on this page provides a glimpse of that process of development, with the new structure of Low Library occupying the high ground (we have provided an 1834 view of the old main building for comparision), and a few other new buildings beyond it.  Old structures of the Bloomingdale, the Macy Villa in the foreground and the Supperintendent's House in the background are still visible, as is the newly opened 116th street in front of Low.  And the vista over the Hudson and other surrounding areas that had made this such an attractive spot is still at least partially unobstructed. 

An even more dramatic view of the process is a panoramic view from 1898. It shows Low Library and a handful of the new university buildings, some still under construction.  It is one of the few extant photographs giving a real sense of the panoramic vista afforded by this high point on the Morningside ridge.  Far more of the old Bloomingdale campus is still visible in this photograph: Green Memorial Hall, the conservatory, and one of the farm buildings, along with the Superintendent's House and the Macy Villa.  The monumental white stone structure of Low Library, looming over the smaller, darker buildings of the old asylum give the genuine feel of the end of a significant but little known chapter in the history of Morningside Heights and the beginning of another that we continue to live in today. (Click here to open the image.)

[1] Dolkart, p.xiv-xvi.

[2] Rosner, p.182-183.  

[3] Dolkart, p.110-111

[4] Ibid., p.108-109.

[5] Ibid., p.114-115.

[6] Ibid., p. 112.

[7] New York Hospital. Annual... 1894, p. 81-87; Columbia University. Officers and graduates of Columbia University, originally the College of the Province of New York known as King's College : general catalogue ... 1754 to 1916. New York: Columbia University, 1917, passim.

The Bloomingdale Departs