Morningside Heights, Manhattan
Boundaries: West 110th Street (south) to West 125th Street (north); Riverside Park (west) to Morningside Park (east)

Stacy Cowley & Gail Stoddard

Around the turn of the century, Morningside Heights was dubbed "The Acropolis of New York." It's a neighborhood dominated by its institutions, including Columbia University, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Luke's Hospital, Grant's Tomb, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Manhattan School of Music. On our walk, covering 110th Street to 116th Street, from Broadway to Morningside Avenue, we discussed the first three of these.

The Geography: Morningside Heights is a plateau, separated from the rest of Manhattan by a steep rise on the west side and a sheer cliff on the east. This unique feature formed with the erosion of softer limestone rock against a wall of hard granite. The result was a "no man's land" in Morningside Heights, which remained relatively undeveloped until the 1800s. It contained little more than a few cottages, farms and riverside mansions, while the surrounding areas such as Harlem grew rapidly.

The Name: Morningside Heights takes its name from Morningside Park (see photo at right), which does indeed catch the morning light on its east-facing cliff edge. Throughout the 19th century, the area's name varied: It was first known as Vandewater Heights, after the family that owned the area, and later names used by area residents included Harlem Heights, Bloomingdale Heights, University Heights, and Cathedral Heights. Columbia University trustees preferred Morningside Heights, and popularized the name through their communications and in the press. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine unsurprisingly preferred Cathedral Heights, and it wasn't until the late 1920s that cathedral officials (grudgingly) accepted Morningside Heights as the neighborhood's name.

The History: The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum moved into Morningside Heights in 1821; a few years later, it was joined by the Leakes and Watts Orphan Asylum. It presence hampered residential development in the area, and pressure mounted for the asylum to relocate. In the late 1880s, Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine both decided to move to Morningside Heights, as the asylum moved out of the city.

In 1904, the subway opened on Broadway, sparking a dramatic boom in the growth of residential housing in Morningside Heights. At the time, upscale apartments were beginning to replace brownstones and row houses as an acceptable style of dwelling for the upper middle class. Since Morningside Heights had never been extensively developed prior to the 1900s, there are no tenements in the area -- nearly all of the neighborhood's residential housing consists of apartments for the affluent. The area became known as the first middle-class apartment neighborhood.

At the turn of the century, Columbia was too poor to build its own housing stock. In the late '50s and early '60s, it began outgrowing its own accommodations, and it rapidly acquired several hundred buildings for conversion to student and faculty housing. Columbia is now the majority landlord in the area.

The Cathedral: In 1887, Bishop Potter, the leader of the New York Episcopalian Community, announced grand plans for the building of a Protestant Cathedral. It was to be a beacon for the religious community in America, and second in size only to the Cathedral in St Petersburg. Protestants in New York -- such as the Astors, Vanderbilts and Belmonts -- were some of the wealthiest members of the society and had amassed strong political power. This church was to represent the wealth and power of their religion.

The dream began after the construction of a Catholic cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The thinking among Protestants was that if a church of such stature could be built celebrating the religion of their Irish servants, they should have an even more imposing building representing the Protestant religion.

A writer for the Real Estate Record wrote that the cathedral "will be seen rising above the city as prominently as St. Paul's is over London. Like a beacon it will be visible from the palisades and from miles up the Hudson; is another direction it will be seen beyond the Harlem; to the foreigner in New Jersey flats and meadows its spires will serve to mark the seat of civilization; it will be one of the first things seen by the incoming immigrant in the lower bay, and the Staten Islander can turn his face towards it in the morning as the Egyptian does towards the Mosque at Cairo, and see its pinnacles brightening in the light of the rising sun."

The cornerstone of the cathedral was laid in 1892, but work stopped a few months later when it was discovered that located in the center of the site's solid bedrock was a deep pocket of soft rock. Nearly a million dollars was spent excavating each pit to bedrock level and then filling these holes with cement. Construction almost stopped completely, as all the money was gone. A half million-dollar donation was made by J.P Morgan in 1895 to "get us out of the hole" (literally!).

After over a hundred years of construction the original plans have been scaled back, and the cathedral is still incomplete. So far, the South Tower is partially complete, while the proposed North Tower has not yet been begun. The current building is large enough to hold two football fields end to end.

The church today serves a multi-racial, multi-denominational, and socioeconomicly mixed community. Its leadership created a stonecutting factory on the grounds to encourage members from the community to seek employment there; the cathedral also offers meals for the homeless, and is actively engaged in providing assistance for persons with HIV/AIDS. In a neighborhood largely dominated by Columbia University's conservative administration, the cathedral is a surprisingly liberal influence.

Columbia University: Morningside Heights is Columbia's third home. It began downtown, near the current location of City Hall, before moving in the mid-1800s to Madison Avenue, in what is currently the advertising district. The Madison Ave. location was expensive and crowded, leaving Columbia with no room for much-needed expansion. Its location also directly affected the school's reputation: The city's power families viewed it as an inferior school cramped into an undesirable urban location, and opted to send their sons (Columbia only admitted men until 1982) instead to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

In the 1890s, Columbia's then-president Seth Low began searching for a new site for Columbia: one where it could dominate the landscape, and create an "urban oasis" of academia. Columbia's Morningside Heights campus was built in the early years of the 20th century by architect Charles Follen McKim, who also designed the (now demolished) Penn Station.

Columbia has generally had an uneasy relationship with other residents in Morningside Heights; town-gown tensions exploded in the infamous 1968 riots. Columbia, which had already outgrown its campus, planned to build a gym in Morningside Park at 112th Street. The gym was to be built on public land; to appease residents, Columbia planned to open the bottom level of the gym to the community. The upper level would be reserved for students, who would enter through a separate entrance.

The plan infuriated the community, and many students sided with the neighborhood's residents. In late April, rioting students took over five campus buildings, which they occupied for a week. University officials broke up the protest by calling the police; in the resulting melee, scores of students were arrested and hundreds injured.

Other educational institutions in Morningside Heights include Teachers College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Barnard College (all Columbia affiliates), along with Union Theological Seminary, the Bank Street School of Education, and the Manhattan School of Music.

Photo credits: Morningside park photo from the Friends of Morningside Park photo book
St. John the Divine photo from
Columbia University/Low Library photo from

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