The History of Columbia College

The ties between Columbia University and New York City predate even Columbia College’s 1754 founding as King’s College. Fifty years before King George II of England granted the royal charter that designated “The College of the Province of New York, in the City of New York ... known by the name of King’s College,” one early proponent wrote to the Anglican church, “New York is the center of English America and a fit place for a Colledge.”

The College enrolled its first class in summer 1754. The campus was located in a vestry room in a school house at Trinity Church, in what is now part of Lower Manhattan. That first class comprised eight students and one faculty member — colonial scholar and Anglican minister Samuel Johnson — who also was the first College’s first president. Johnson presented to his students a curriculum of 13 subjects designed to fulfill the tenets outlined in the royal charter of providing “for the Instruction and Education of Youth in the Learned Languages and the Liberal Arts and Sciences.” By the fall, Johnson’s son William, who became a member of the Constitutional Convention and president of the College, joined his father as a temporary instructor.

During the next six years, King’s College hired its first regular faculty member, graduated its first class of five bachelor degree candidates in a commencement ceremony at St. George’s Chapel and established a campus at Park Place on a three-acre site presented to the College by Trinity Church. This campus remained in use until the start of the American Revolution.

By 1763, Samuel Johnson had retired and was succeeded as president by Myles Cooper, an Oxford trained minister and staunch royalist. As the Revolutionary War began 1775, Cooper was chased from New York by patriots and boarded a British frigate to England. Commencement was canceled. Recently ordained minister Benjamin Moore (Class of 1768) became the acting president but by 1776 classes were suspended due to the war. The campus was seized and put to use as a military hospital, first by the Continental army and then by the British during their occupation of Manhattan.

While most trustees, students and faculty sided with the crown, a number of them, including Alexander Hamilton (Class of 1778), John Jay (Class of 1764), Gouverneur Morris (Class of 1768) and Robert R. Livingston (Class of 1765) became important figures in the founding of America.

Jay and Hamilton were instrumental in the reopening of the College in 1784. Chartered by the New York State Legislature as Columbia College, the new charter declared it the “mother college of the University of the State of New York.” Three years later, a new charter was issued that established Columbia College in the City of New York, returning the College to its previous status as a privately governed college serving New York City, with a board of trustees as its governing body. The charter was amended slightly in 1810 and remains in force.

In 1857, the College moved again, this time to a site on Madison Avenue that previously housed the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. It was here in 1860 that intercollegiate sports began at Columbia with a baseball game against NYU. By 1870, football had been added to the roster of intercollegiate sports, and by 1873, crew.

By 1892, the School of Mines (now Engineering), the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the School of Nursing, the School of Library Service (now closed), the School of Architecture and the Law School had been established, as had the precursor to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Affiliated institutions Barnard College and Teachers College also opened their doors during this time.

It was at this same time that Columbia acquired land in Morningside Heights that previously housed the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, one building of which currently houses La Maison Française. In 1893, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, & White begin designing the Morningside Heights campus. In 1896, Columbia College in the City of New York was renamed Columbia University in the City of New York, with the undergraduate school retaining the name Columbia College. In 1897, the Morningside campus opened its doors.

Throughout the 20th century, changes at Columbia reflected changes in the world. The modern science of anthropology and the foundation of modern genetics were established at Columbia, and in 1919 the first course of what became the Core Curriculum was offered. This course, at the time titled “War and Peace Studies,” was created as a direct response to WWI. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, Columbia became the birthplace of FM radio and the first North American site where the atom was split. Students studied with legendary faculty members Jacques Barzun ’27, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling ’25 and I.I. Rabi, just to name a few. Also in the 1940s, a number of leaders of what would become the Beat Generation passed through the gates, including Allen Ginsberg ’48 and Jack Kerouac ’44. Columbia established the Student Homophile League, the country’s oldest gay rights advocacy group, in 1966 and the Black Student Organization in 1973. In 1983, Columbia College became the last Ivy League school to admit women.

Columbia students have the benefit of the small collegiate town feel of Morningside Heights and at the same time access to one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse cities. New York City is indeed, as that early proponent stated more than 300 years ago, “... a fit place for a Colledge.”