Architecturally striking student center is growing in usage and
By Jonathan Lemire '01
one has ever claimed that evolution happens overnight.
Though it is unlikely that Charles Darwin was referring to Ivy
League student centers when he published his landmark tract on the
developmental changes of flora and fauna in the mid-19th century,
his basic principle that evolution happens over a period of time
can easily be applied to Alfred Lerner Hall.
Architecturally controversial when it opened in the fall of
1999, the campus's new student center is steadily becoming more
appreciated and widely used. While there certainly have been
growing pains, Lerner, through the combined efforts of
administrators and student groups and the drawing power of events
and restaurants, is clearly being transformed into a true center
for Columbia students.
"Though it took a year, Lerner Hall is being used beyond belief
by student groups," Dean of Students Chris Colombo says. "It also
has become a real community center for its causal user: students
who use it to get food, check their mail and meet with
"Lerner has really grown on students," agrees student body
president Ariel Neuman '01. "Almost everyone I know is using it
more than before."
Lerner Hall, of course, has the unenviable task of replacing a
legend. For generations of undergraduates, Ferris Booth Hall was
the Morningside Heights mecca for campus activities. However, by
the early 1990s, the Board of Trustees began to realize that Ferris
Booth, beloved as it was by alumni and students, was becoming
outdated and downright dilapitated, and needed to be either
extensively renovated or replaced. George Rupp's arrival as
University President in 1993 ended that debate.
"When President Rupp came to Columbia," Vice President of
Facilities Management Mark Burstein says, "he made it clear that he
wanted to improve the undergraduate experience here and that
construction of a new student center would be part of making that
happen. Ferris Booth was designed in the 1950s, and was built for a
very different student population than Columbia has now: namely,
for commuters. We needed a new building to support our new type of
Ferris Booth went down in a heap of bricks and memories in the
summer of 1996, leaving Columbia without a student center for the
first time in four decades. Bernard Tschumi, dean of the School of
Architecture, was commissioned to design the new building; a
primary donor, Alfred Lerner '55, was recruited to help fund it;
and hordes of construction workers descended on campus to build it.
And while some College students went through most of their
undergraduate careers without a student center, Columbia's promise
of a state-of-the-art structure that would be twice the size of
Ferris Booth soon began to rise from the gaping hole in the ground
adjacent to Carman Hall between 114th and 115th Streets on
by its ramps, increased usage has made Lerner Hall a vibrant
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
Though Spectator editorials on the building's apparent
lack of progress would have had you believe otherwise, Lerner Hall
opened on schedule in September 1999; a gala ribbon-cutting
ceremony was held a month later, featuring an appearance by Art
Garfunkel '62. The building was a marvel to behold: a traditional
brick facade facing Broadway, combined with a sleek, ultra-modern
glass wall overlooking campus, all joined together by an extensive
series of ramps and steel.
Architecture critics raved. Students complained.
forms of communication that varied from campus-wide e-mails to
informal conversations, numerous students voiced their opinions
that the new center was too sterile, too confusing, and most
importantly, too empty. According to Harris Schwartz '59, a
long-time administrator and former dean of residence halls who is
now executive director, student services at Lerner Hall, the
criticisms were not totally unexpected.
"When Lerner first opened, the building's construction was
still being finished off," notes Schwartz. "Students were beginning
to see the building and not really understand how it all came
together and could be used.
a number of years, students existed in a nomadic, 'Ferris Booth-in
exile' state, so when this building opened there was no tradition
that carried over of using a student center. By definition, Lerner
came with a learning curve."
of students' apprehension towards the new building was that even
when it opened, much of it was still closed. Though the ramps, the
student mailboxes and the ground-floor dining option, Cafe (212),
opened in the fall of 1999, a number of the building's marquis
attractions, including the Ferris Booth Commons restaurant and the
theater portion of the Roone Arledge Auditorium and Cinema, were
still under construction.
were committed to getting Lerner up and running as soon as
possible," Schwartz says, "which led to some portions of the
building still being under construction while the Hall itself
opened. But once most of it opened, there was growing evidence that
students were becoming more comfortable with it and making much
more use of it."
numbers back him up. As of December 2000, Lerner was averaging
42,000 turnstile entries a day, up 65 percent from a year earlier.
Its ramps are more crowded, its lounges are filling up, and general
complaints about the building are dying down.
could bring about such a change of heart?
"It's a building that's now really alive, and what made it come
alive? Food!" says Colombo with a laugh.
Lerner Hall contains two distinct restaurants, both on the
campus side of the building. Cafe (212), located on the ground
floor, specializes in sandwiches, salads and breakfast foods, while
Ferris Booth Commons, located on the floor above (with additional
seating another level up), is a European-style market that offers
everything from pizza and pasta to sushi and stir-fry.
According to Director of Dining Services Scott Wright, the two
eateries - which each average over 2,200 customers a day - are the
two busiest restaurants on campus, so popular that they have taken
away a large portion of the business of other campus dining
"Cafe (212) has exceeded all expectations," Wright says, "and
Ferris Booth Commons is doing almost as well. In fact, when we saw
how popular (212) was last year, we changed the design of Ferris
Booth in order to provide more seating for the overflow of
|Students regularly use
Lerner for such daily tasks as checking mail.
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
Though he cites the administration's long-standing belief that
feeding people in Lerner's restaurants would increase traffic in
the building as a whole, Bob Moskovitz, Columbia's executive
director of business services, still expresses surprise at just how
well-received the two locations have become.
menu that is offered in Cafe (212) and Ferris Booth Commons was
created from a market research report done two years ago that
revealed that students wanted fresh, healthy choices that were
prepared in front of them," explains Moskovitz. "The menu at (212)
is based upon that of the Au Bon Pain chain, one of the most
popular among students according to our survey, while the one at
Ferris Booth fills in the gap of those foods that were desired but
not offered anywhere else on campus, like brick-oven pizza and
new dining options have been big hits with students.
really like both restaurants in Lerner," says Michael Rubin '04.
"They are more open and have better selection than any other place
Though perhaps not as popular as Cafe (212) - so crowded that
it is scheduled to undergo some renovations this summer to
accommodate its constant heavy traffic - business also is booming
for the Columbia bookstore in its new location, the basement of
Lerner's Broadway side.
bookstore's sales have increased to $9.8 million, an 11 percent
jump over last year," Moskovitz says. "Having it in Lerner is great
because it allows a student to go 'one-stop shopping' in the
addition to the Barnes and Noble-run bookstore, four other business
locations exist in the new student center: Citibank adjacent to
(212), STA Travel on the first floor, Copy Express on the third
floor, and the Game and Pool Room at the top of the first set of
ramps. Despite their popularity, however, there are no current
plans to add any more retail to Lerner Hall.
"Dozens of businesses want in," Moskovitz says, "but there's no
need now to add anything. We don't want to take away space from
students just to add some retail."
Indeed, any attempt to take away space from students would
probably be met with great resistance since, in the building's
biggest controversy since the futuristic ramps were unveiled,
Lerner is already dealing with a meeting space shortage.
While 26.2 percent of the 225,000 square-foot student center is
devoted to meeting and activity space, questions remain as to
whether the allotted areas are adequate to meet the needs of the
2,389 student events that were held in Lerner during the fall 2000
semester alone. In addition, almost 700 non-student-affiliated
events were held in the building that semester, adding to the
Neuman, while acknowledging that Lerner on the whole is a great
resource as a meeting space for student groups on campus, believes
something must be done to make Lerner's meeting rooms more
accessible to students.
"Space issues are definitely Lerner's biggest problem," he
says. "At the halfway point in a term, for instance, all the
meeting space will be booked for the rest of the semester. And,
since there's such an administrative push to get student groups to
use Lerner, other meeting places on campus have become much harder
|Students looging onto
some of the many available computers.
PHOTO: EILEEN BARROSO
Neuman's suggestions for changes that would make Lerner more
group-friendly include keeping the building open 24 hours
(currently, it closes at midnight during the week and 3 a.m. on
Saturdays) and devoting much of the still-unfinished sixth floor to
Though asserting that "there is no budget, unfortunately, for
keeping Lerner open 24 hours," Schwartz says he shares some of the
students' concerns about meeting space and that some of the sixth
floor may be used to alleviate those concerns, though no official
plans have been approved.
"Lerner's biggest weakness," he says, "is that there isn't
enough Lerner to go around. We could double the space inside and it
still wouldn't be enough for everyone."
an attempt to make sure that Lerner is booked "as fairly as
possible," according to Associate Director of Student Services Dara
Falco, a system of pre-calendaring has been instituted to ensure
that if groups know their space needs early, they will get the
areas in Lerner they request.
"About 40 percent of all events are booked in the pre-
calendaring period, which takes place the year before," Falco says.
"The rest are done on a first-come, first-served basis, and all
scheduling conflicts are mediated by the space and scheduling
committee that consists of both administrative and student
Despite the occasional difficulty in getting space, there is no
question that Lerner is a valuable asset to student groups,
according to Marc Dunkelman '01, lead coordinator of the Columbia
Political Union, one of the many groups that calls the student
center home. "It's really given the CPU a place to reach out to the
Columbia community and the outside world of politics," he
concept of "Columbia community" lies at the heart of Lerner Hall's
mission, according to Colombo. "In addition to all of its events,"
he notes, "one of Lerner's greatest strengths is that it
facilitates informal interactions between students every day and
builds a real sense of community here."
However, the biggest component of this desired community,
Columbia's student body, is still divided as to whether Lerner has
actually fostered any of its much promised sense of school spirit.
Andrew Pagano '01 doesn't feel that students were consulted enough
in the building's design.
a commuter," he says, "I'm a little disappointed and upset that
there are no facilities for a commuters lounge here and that there
are no real attempts at integration. There should have been some
dialogue with students on issues."
According to Jorge Herrera '01, president of the Columbia
College Senior Class Committee, however, students - despite some
legitimate complaints about the building - are by and large warming
to it rapidly.
"Lerner Hall has improved a lot in the two years it has been
open," he says. "It's much more crowded and feels more like a
location students want to be in. It has a great future ahead of it,
and it's already showing it today."
About the Author: Jonathan Lemire '01, having passed
his swim test, graduates this month with a double degree in history
and sarcastic Spectator sports columns.