Manhattan History – Alma Mater Prospera

THE inhabitants of Manhattan took their own time in rallying to the cause of education, lagging behind Massachusetts, Virginia, and Connecticut in founding an institution of higher learning.

As we have seen, the Dutch settlement was definitely a trading venture by a chartered company which never achieved prosperity from its settlement down to the English occupation. During that period Harvard College was founded in Massachusetts, a fact often cited as showing the superior intellectualism of the Puritans. Massachusetts’ leaders held a point of view decidedly at odds with the Mother country under the Stuarts; they believed in enforceable righteousness, and so felt impelled to train leaders who would herd the plebs in a definite direction. The Dutch, by contrast, merely wanted to make a little money, in which pursuit education is a minor consideration when the profits are derivable from buying furs and selling firewater, buying land and selling steel tomahawks. In fact, education may be a handicap in such pursuits, if it stresses morality in the least.

After the English took possession, factional strife shook the settlement, creating a disunity which placed agreement on a program for higher education out of the question for years to come. It is never quite enough to say that education is a blessing; practical persons also require to be convinced that education will be along a certain line before they reach into their pockets to finance it. Lacking agreement on that issue, early colonial New York remained without a college, and the more affluent New Yorkers sent their sons abroad to acquire learning.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, this situation cried for remedy, and remedy was now possible where it had not been before. The Protestant Episcopal Church, with its aristocratic tradition, had been drawing into its fold the more affluent of the Dutch families, thus healing the breach and forming in the congregation of Trinity a group which was not only en rapport with the British Crown but also the chief prospective source of students and support for a college. Consequently, with Trinity holding large areas of undeveloped land, the way was open to secure a charter from the King and start a college under the aegis of Episcopalianism, endowing it out of Trinity’s landed heritage, which had itself come from the Crown.

In 1752, therefore, Trinity granted lands to King’s College. These are described in the charter of October 31, 1754, when “George the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith,” got around to signing the document, as upwards of “Three thousand pounds value . . . on the west side of Broadway, in the west ward of our city of New York, fronting easterly to Church Street, between Barclay Street and Murray Street, to the North River; and also a street, from the middle of the said land, easterly to the Broadway, of ninety Foot, to be called Robinson Street.”

This property, now known as the Lower Estate of Columbia University, became the site of the college buildings; but these never occupied the whole of the ample site, and the remainder of the area was leased out in lots, for long periods and at low rents, so that King’s was a struggling institution for many years. The American Revolution not only reduced its student body in numbers but also made it unpopular with the people. “Root and branch” patriots would have cast it down completely; but more sober counsel prevailed, the legislature confirming the Charter in 1787 and changing the name to Columbia College, and it still continues as an integral part of Columbia University. At this time examination showed that while the college lands had greatly increased in value, the income they produced was so small in proportion to their worth, that Columbia required financial relief from the state in order to continue its existence. This aid was small, and the college continued to be in straits; yet by contrast with the treatment accorded in the same period to Trinity, from which the college had stemmed, Columbia received what must be regarded as liberal consideration.

In the disturbed conditions incident to the War of 1812, college revenues fell, and the Legislature had recourse to a lottery to raise funds for college purposes. To give the two upstate colleges, Union and Hamilton, all the proceeds of the lottery, Columbia was induced to accept land roughly equal in value to its prospective share of the gamble, or $40,000. Thus came to Columbia its Upper Estate, twenty acres divided into 256 city lots.

The prior history of this parcel, upon the greater part of which the Rockefeller Center development now stands, is unique beyond all other Manhattan real estate. In 1801 Dr. David Hosack bought this property, then lying on the west side of Middle Road (now Fifth Avenue) between the north side of Forty-seventh Street and the south side of Fifty-first Street. In depth it approached to within 100 feet of the present Sixth Avenue line. All this area was of course still unsubdivided. The price paid by Dr. Hosack was $4,807.36 in cash and a quitrent of sixteen bushels of good merchantable wheat to be paid every year in kind or specie. These quitrents were released in 1810 for $285.71.

The purchaser was one of New York’s leading physicians, who proposed to remedy the shortage of medical herbs as far as he could by providing a dependable source of supply. As the Elgin Botanical Garden, named for his Scots birthplace, it became notable of its kind, not only for utility in providing materials for medication and experiment, but also for its landscaped beauty, as the doctor was a man of taste as well as of science. The effort exhausted the founder’s resources after he had spent $100,000 on the property in nine years. At the suggestion of medical societies the State bought it for about $75,000, with the intention of maintaining it for public service and education. War needs sickened the State of its bargain, and by 1814 the legislature welcomed the opportunity to pass it on to the college in lieu of $40,000.

Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, recorded the history of the tract since it came into possession of the college, in these words:

The trustees of Columbia College had very hard work to hold and maintain the property and time and again they were tempted to part with it in order to get funds for current expenses. Sagacity, untiring patience, and far-sighted wisdom prevailed, however, and the property was held and developed, often at great immediate sacrifice and embarrassment. In 1823 the grounds of the Garden were rented to a private individual for $125 a year and taxes, and in 1826 to a new tenant for $500 a year and taxes. This tenant, however, paid no rent and only $118 was recovered by the College by the sale of his goods. In 1838 the city began to open streets in this section and for 25 years the trustees of the college were called upon to make very heavy payments for opening, grading and finishing. It was 1852 before the College was able to enter on the system of leaseholds which has since prevailed,

the terms of which are subject to revision at the end of each 21 year period. In 1856 it was voted to move the College from its original site on College Place to the block at 5th Avenue and 49th Street, and plans were prepared for a building with a facade of 280 feet, an enormous structure for those days. The cost, however, was prohibitive, and instead the Asylum property at Madison Ave. and 49th Street was purchased for temporary quarters. There the College was re-moved in May, 1857, and there it remained for forty years, until the final removal to Morningside Heights in 1897.

To effect the move uptown the trustees purchased in 1856 twenty lots on Madison Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth streets, and soon added enough to round out the remainder of the block as a site. The seller was the Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, one of the several charities which had benefited by the earlier willingness of the city to endow philanthropy by land grants.

In May, 1857, the college entered its new home, which suited it so well that it remained on Madison Avenue until the need for more space recommended the removal to Morningside Heights in 1897. As a result, the Upper Estate was left to develop normally in relation to residential and business needs, producing revenue for education rather than housing faculties and students; while the Lower Estate, after 1857, came altogether into business use.

The management of these two large tracts has been generally judicious and always conservative. Income began to rise in the 1880’s, as follows: 1886, $371,901; 1887, $388,544; 1888, $377,396; 1889, $489,536.

Faced with the responsibility for spending such a large sum, certain to rise to $525,000 in 1892, the trustees took counsel of their fears. Affluence, it is true, had succeeded want in University circles; but was history likely to repeat itself? The trustees thought not, reaching this conclusion, to which subsequent events gave the lie, in no uncertain terms:

It seems to this Committee that when all the leases on the Upper Estate are paying upon the new basis; that the College must be considered as in receipt of its annual actual income from present sources. It is impossible, of course, to forecast the future value of property twenty-one years from now, but it seems to this committee that at the end of this interval, it is quite as likely that there will be a small decrease in our rent roll as that there should be any further increase.

No equally intelligent body of men ever made a worse guess. The Treasurer’s report for 1930—31 showed the assessed valuation on the Upper and Lower estates to be nearly $31,000,000. Its rents were $500,-000 in 1889, while Rockefeller Center alone brought in six times that sum in 1932.

From 1889 down to the present, practically all of Columbia’s leases have been renewed at rentals materially higher than those prevailing before. In forty years the returner increased fourfold. Every twenty years Columbia’s income from land has doubled; and recently there has been a windfall in the Rockefeller Center development which brings Columbia $3,000,000 a year for twenty-four years and three renewals of twenty-one years each.

Of the original Hosack tract of twenty acres, about one-third was sold to finance, in part, Columbia’s changes in location. In 1857, when the college was moving to Madison Avenue, Forty-ninth and Fiftieth streets, the Fifth Avenue frontage between Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth was sold; about half of the frontage with a strip on Forty-eighth Street going to the Collegiate Church. In 1907, the entire block from Fifth Avenue to within 100 feet of Sixth Avenue, Forty-seventh to Forty-eighth streets, was sold to ex-tend and develop the Morningside Heights property.

The University’s present seat on Morningside Heights is benefiting by the same appreciation of values which attended its former locations. A buckwheat field occupying that elevation became a key position in the Battle of Harlem, September 16, 1776. The American general reports the engagement thus:

We pursued them to a Buckwheat field on the Top of a high Hill, distance about 400 paces, where they received a considerable reinforcement, with several Field Pieces, and there made a Stand, a very brisk action ensued at this Place which continued about two Hours our People at length worsted them a third Time, caused them to fall back into an or-chard . . .

Morningside Heights still has its battles, chief of which are undergraduate ruckuses having to do with pacifism. One wonders if the University, since grown to be the largest in the country, would occupy that buckwheat field today if no fighting had been done in 1776.

Of all the beneficiaries of New York real estate, Columbia University is certainly the one which gives greatest return to the public in prompt and vital service. In this case, at least, the hurrying steps of New Yorkers contribute no income for the support of drones. Though sometimes catalogued among the “great hoarders,” the term is a misnomer in connection with an institution which spends on the public, for enrichment of life and the increase of learning, all that it receives.