Construction and Evolution of Union Theological Seminary Campus

History and Design

Establishing the Seminary

Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York was founded by a group of nine Presbyterians who believed that a training school should be established and located in a large city: specifically, New York. This was a mainstream idea during the time period, as many seminaries were founded in the 19th century in America to prepare leaders for their denominations. This group first met in October 1835, and by January 18, 1836 the Theological Seminary originated. The Seminary opened for instruction December 1836, and the Board of Directors accepted the New York State Legislature's Act of Incorporation on December 20, 1839. This legal act also established the official name of the institution as "The Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York."

The first seminary buildings were located on University Place, Greene Street, and Eighth Street in lower Manhattan. At the time, this area was considered to be the outskirts of the city. The three-story building had room for only thirty students. The Seminary continued to grow and subsequently moved in 1884 to Lenox Hill on Park Avenue and 70th Street on the east side of Manhattan. Four new interconnected buildings, surrounding a hollow square, were constructed  on a site of ten lots.

The second home of Union Theological Seminary, however, soon became inadequate.

Original Campus

Morningside Campus - view of the landscape prior to when construction began in 1908.

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The Move to Morningside

By the 1890's, it was clear that the buildings on Park Avenue were insufficient for the rapidly growing Seminary. Space for new courses and seminars was needed, and the library was expanding quickly to accomodate the new cirriculum and research interests of the faculty, staff and students. The dormitory was filled to capacity, and the faculty needed more space for their work.

In the early 1900's, UTS President Charles Cuthbert Hall agreed with the Board of Directors that the present location on Park Avenue did not have room for expansion. Morningside Heights, across town on the Upper West Side, was the only site with enough available land. The new subway line would soon be opening and would link the area to the rest of the city. Moreover, President Hall wished for a closer connection with Columbia University which made the area a natural choice. Thanks to the generosity of board vice president D. Willis James, thirty-six lots on the area bounded by Broadway and Claremont Avenue between 120th and 122nd Streets were purchased in 1904 for $850,000.

The Silent Influence of Environment

Daniel Johnson Fleming, professor emeritus at Union, wrote: "The Directors of the Seminary had as one of their aims that the very buildings should become an element in the education of those who live and study within its walls." The Directors wanted an obvious ecclesiastical influence to show in the architecture.

Thirty-five architects submitted competitive plans for the Seminary campus; Francis Richmond Allen and Charles Collens of Boston were chosen, and they fulfilled the aims of the directors by choosing the perpendicular English Gothic as the style. The general contract was awarded to A. J. Robinson Company and the excavating contract went to Clarence L. Smith Company.

Robert Handy writes, "The new buildings were to have at least six seminar rooms, adequate offices for faculty and administration, a dormitory suitable for two hundred students, a president's house, a much larger library with a reading room twice as large as the one being left, and a chapel also doubled in size."

The Seminary's third location thus began construction in 1908. The cornerstone was laid on Tuesday, November 17, 1908; classes in the buildings began September 28, 1910.

Construction Design

A publication from 1910 written for the ceremony to dedicate the buildings states: "The buildings are of native stone taken from the site, the window tracery and finished trimmings being of Indiana limestone. The buildings are fireproof throughout, are heated by steam and lighted by electricity, and are ventilated in the most approved manner. The main heating and lighting plant of the group is placed underneath the Dormitory at the lowest point of the site."

The walls are composed of solid stone, a native random ashlar flatrock, quarried and excavated on the site with no skeleton construction of steel. Ornamentation was kept to a minimum.

Daniel Johnson Fleming also wrote:

"The dark grey outer walls are relieved by lighter Indiana limestone at every coping, trimming, buttress, and window tracery... All are pointed with Lafarge cement in order to make the general tone as light as possible. It was for beauty that five feet were sacrificed from the lost line on three sides of the property...for grass and flower plots, and to permit the buttresses and towers to project beyond the line of the facade and thus increase the shadow contrasts. Reaching upward from the towers are graceful finials inviting aspirations to go higher still. This upward sweep is accentuated through the recurving of the foliage on each of the clustered pinnacles. Thus, as becomes a "union" seminary, there is variety in function, color, shape and size, but with it all unity."

Building Preview

The following is a short preview of each building, which is further expanded throughout the exhibit.

#2 Union Theological Seminary C-6848. Laying of the Cornerstone

Laying of the cornerstone, November 1908.

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The campus is located on a rectangular block bound by Broadway, Claremont Avenue, 120th and 122nd Streets, and enclose a quadrangle approximately 300 feet long by 100 feet wide. The quad was designed to reproduce the feeling of an old English enclosure at Cambridge.

Union Theological Seminary. Administration Building

Administration Building

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A tower at the corner of 120th Street and Broadway contains an entrance hall that is three-stories tall. The ceiling is vaulted with fan tracery. The wide, circular stairway leading to the upper floors originally also led to the third-floor entrance of the Library, as well as to classrooms, Professor's studies and offices in the Administration Building. This area today is known as the Rotunda.

The library is located on the Broadway side between 120th and 121st streets. According to orignal designs, the first floor originally offered two rooms for a Biblical, Christian and Missionary museum and for the exhibition of rare books. The second floor and fourth floor offered seminar rooms. On the third floor was and is the unchanged reference library, 100 feet long by 40 feet wide, with an oak beamed ceiling.  The administration offices were on the third floor as well. The library stack is beneath the reference library, and contains five levels which connect with various floors. The library tower originally rose over a vaulted drive-way with ornamental iron gates, the principal entrance to the quadrangle.

Union Theological Seminary 122nd St and Clermont Ave. C-7522. Professors' suites

Professors' Suites. A small portion of the James Chapel Tower can be seen on the far right of this image.

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The chapel stands on Claremont Avenue, across from the quadrangle and the library. An apartment house bounds the quandrangle on 122nd Street, and provides residences for ten professors.

The student dormitories are between 121st and 122nd streets on Broadway and offer about one hundred and fifty sets of rooms. Most of these comprise a study with bedroom adjoining; a few sets consist of a study and two bedrooms. In the library tower, with direct access from the dormitory, is a social room for the use of the students.

The Burke Library (Columbia University Libraries) / 3041 Broadway at 121st Street / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 851-5606 /