Behind Low’s Beaux Arts columns lie unusual treasures and odd bits of geological and historical lore you won’t find in any guidebook.
From its Pantheon-inspired dome to its sweeping staircase, Low Library is the beating heart of Columbia’s Morningside campus. Designed by McKim, Mead & White, the architects behind the Brooklyn Museum and Boston Public Library, Low is an iconic nationally recognized landmark. But it is also full of arcane bits of history that would be lost to time were it not for the archivists, geologists, and other curious minds who have dug up pieces of its past.
Here are six things every Columbian should know about Low (including a handy tip should you need a rescue from its historic single-occupancy elevator).
Flashback to the Devonian: When a Year Had 415 Days
The remains of ancient coral from 400 million years ago can be found embedded in the stately marble fireplace in Low’s Burden Room. When these corals were living, breathing organisms on a much younger Earth, the moon was a bit closer, and exerted a stronger gravitational pull that made our planet spin faster. The faster rotation rate translated into shorter days and a longer year: a day was just 21 hours, but a year stretched on for 415 days. The Burden Room was a highlight on the geology tours of campus that David Walker, a solid earth researcher at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used to give. “Things were show-stoppingly different in the Devonian,” he says in this video recording of his Burden Room stop.
Low’s ‘Lesser Known’ Elevator
Until the 1960s, Low had just one elevator: a wooden contraption not much bigger than a phone booth. Columbia’s president Seth Low had it installed to breeze between his ceremonial office (now the Visitor Center) and then-Secretary William Beebe's office. Once Low left to become the mayor of New York, his successor, Nicholas Butler, seized the lift for his own use. Columbia historians call it the ‘Butler’ elevator. But if you get stuck and need a rescue, be sure to tell security you’re in Low’s “lesser known” elevator (per a sign taped to one wall) so they can find you.
A Pre-Ergometer Workout Room for Rowers
When the Harlem River froze over, generations of Columbia rowers headed for Low’s sub-basement and the rowing tanks stationed there from the 1930s through the 1990s. The canvas-lined wooden tanks originally sat on the tennis courts by Furnald Hall, but no matter how much salt was added to the tanks, they tended to freeze over. In 1935, a solution presented itself. Low’s ventilation system had been removed, freeing up space for the tanks. The new workout space was “smallish,” but “cool and well-lighted,” Spec reported. It also retained some of its former character: “Steampipes are heavily insulated and padded so that even if one of the taller men smacks his head against one he won’t feel it—much.” Today, Columbia rowers have their pick of modern ergometers, or ergs, at Dodge or the uptown boathouses.
A Second Act for the Old Rotunda Reading Room
Once Butler became Columbia’s main library, the elegant furniture in Low’s Rotunda reading room came down and was virtually forgotten until a former Columbia professor carted it off to Schenectady, N.Y. Dixon Ryan Fox, a professor of American history, had hoped to succeed Nicholas Butler as president but after decades of waiting in the wing, he apparently gave up and took the top job at Union College in 1934. Returning to Columbia a year later to accept an honorary degree, Fox spotted the old McKim, Mead & White furnishings and decided to make a move. With permission from Butler and Columbia’s trustees, the furniture lived out its final years in Nott Memorial, a library-in-the-round at Union College in Schenectady, NY.
A Perch for Future Aviators
Low’s beehive-shaped dome is the largest of its kind in the United States, and gives Low its defining look. The dome was open to visitors when Amelia Earhart was a student in General Studies. Years later, she’d become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. But even as a student, she was drawn to high places. “I was probably the most frequent visitor on the top of the library dome,” she wrote in her memoir, The Fun of It.
A Soaring Rotunda Bathed in ‘Moonlight’
The cathedral-like ceiling of Low Rotunda has a sacred feel that makes the room a natural fit for ceremonial events for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. But from the start, lighting this cavernous space was a problem. Low opened In 1897, as electricity was making its way into big cities. To give Low’s electric lights extra juice, Columbia physics professor William Hallock devised an ingenious solution: hang a colossal sphere from the ceiling. Seven feet across, the wooden sphere was hollow and painted a dull white, according to Spec in the article, “Artificial Moonlight.” A year later, Scientific American featured the Moon Ball in its pages.
©Columbia University ━ Kim Martineau ━ July, 2022