The Broadway Residence

Status: Final Section (Library) Dedicated 9/29/01

Columbia plans to expand its undergraduate enrollment from 3,500 to 4,000 and needs to build a dormitory somewhere to do so. It needs the space by the 2000 school year. Therefore, the University has proposed to put this new building on the northeast corner of Broadway at 113th St. The Chase Bank formerly on this site has relocated to 109th St. and Broadway. The derelict blue garage on Broadway has been demolished. The facade of the Sigma Chi fraternity house on 113th St., otherwise known as the Keister House, will be preserved and incorporated into the facade of the new building. It is visible in the lower right-hand corner of the picture below. It is considered historic by some local preservationists because its architect, George Keister, was also the architect of some famous theatres downtown, and because it is important to preserve minor buildings in a neighborhood to conserve the overall texture.

The garage site was owned by The New York Public Library, which has been planning for years to build a new neighborhood branch there. The library will occupy two floors in the new building, which it considers preferable to the many-floored arrangement that would result if it developed the garage site on its own. The library is currently housed in a temporary building on 113th St. between Amsterdam and Broadway, which is surprisingly attractive and a standing reproach to the dismal temporary structure that has been put up to house student activities on the Columbia College Campus.

The architect of this new dormitory is Robert A.M. Stern (Photo), probably America's greatest living architect. He is an alumnus of Columbia College and used to be head of Columbia's architecture school. He has done some fine historicist work, particularly an office building in Boston and at the University of Virginia. This will be an elegant traditionalist building in mixed beige brick with limestone-colored trim. The design is similar enough to a traditional Manhattan apartment block to harmonize with the urban environment, but different enough to provide visual interest. A taller version of the same building (drawing), which would have been a set-back tower, was offered by the architect but rejected as inharmonious and loud by the community at a public meeting in 1998. We applaud the sensitivity and aesthetic good manners of the architect in listening to the community; this building will stand in stark contrast to Bernard Tschumi's new Lerner Hall, a hideous and arrogant post-modern ego trip just up the street. This gracious revival of a tried-and-true traditional New York style wins hands-down. There have been two public meetings concerning this building. The building has received the needed Community Board 9 approval for its zoning variances.

Believe it or not, there used to be an apartment building on this site! The site 50 years ago. The site before the project. Under construction #1. Under Construction #2.Under Construction #3. Main architect's impression. Architect's impression #2. Architect's impression #3. Architect's impression #4. Architect's impression #5.

Update 3/15/00: This building looks better all the time as it takes shape. It is turning out to be a quiet masterpiece that is not only good in all the ways that a highly public building should be, but is good in ways it was under no obligation to be good in. For example, it simultaneously upholds the traditional street wall on Broadway and has a surprisingly sculptural setback that maintains the townhouse-scaled character of 113th St. The elevated patio and the twin pergolas give it an intimate, recreational feel that hints at one of the thrills of Manhattan living: the rooftop. The grand arched entrance to the public library branch gives some focus to the civic life of a neighborhood that has long lacked any visual landmarks not associated with the long shadow of its great institutions. Mr. Stern's great insight, of which most contemporary architects are pathetically innocent, is that the strength of the aesthetic effect does not depend on the loudness of the noise, and it is the sign of a true master to make his point without screaming. This building's light color - which harmonizes perfectly with the other major structures on this section of Broadway - and chaste ornamentation give it a lightness which is very rare in New York apartment buildings. It has the quality, which only the very best buildings have, of making the buildings around it look better. Incidentally, the quality of this building, which was significantly redesigned in response to community reaction, is a vindication of this cooperative process.

Update 9/29/01: The NY Public Library branch in this building has finally opened, accompanied by major neighborhood rejoicing. See the MHNET archive for details.

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