NYC - Columbia University: Low Memorial Library

The Low Memorial Library was the first building on Columbia University's new Morningside Campus, originally serving as its main library. Since being supplanted by the larger Butler Library in 1934, it has hosued the office of thee President and served as home to the archival collection and administrative offices. The Library was built from 1895-1897 by the university's 12th President Seth Low, a former Brooklyn Mayor, in memory of his father, Abiel Abbot Low. Unable to raise adequate funding through alumni, Low financed the construction with $1 million of his own money.


Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, & White designed the Library in neoclassical style, borrowing elements from the Roman Pantheon and Athen's Parthenon. Designed in the form of a Greek cross, it is crowned by the largest all-granite dome in North America (105 feet high and 70 feet across) and features windows modelled on those of the Baths of Diocletian.The columns on the library's front facade are in the Ionic order, suited to institutions of arts and letters. An inscription on the building's attic describes the history of the university.


The interior abounds with classical references. At the entryway are bronze busts of Zeus and Apollo. The foyer contains a white marble bust of Pallas Athene (Athena), modeled after the Minerve du Collier at the Louvre. The twelve signs of the zodiac, which represent knowledge, surround her. The 106-foot tall rotunda, formerly the library reading room when the building was used for its original function, is lined with columns of solid green Connemara marble from Ireland, topped with gold capitals. Roman and Greek philosophers Demosthenes, Euripides, Sophocles, and Augustus Caesar stare down from the rotunda's heights as the four points of knowledge, Law, Philosophy, Medicine, and Theology mark the four points of the Greek Cross. The rest of the interior is finished with Italian and Istrian marble.


Low Library's location, atop a plinth of stairs at the centre of campus, was meant to demonstrate the value of the secular pursuit of knowledge as opposed to religion, the role of which was minimised via the subsidiary placement of the university's religious buildings on Low's right and left flanks. Daniel Chester French's sculpture of the goddess Minerva, Alma Mater was dedicated on the steps leading to the Library on September 23, 1903 and has since become a symbol of the Columbia University. The 12-foot bronze statue, which sits on a marble and bronze base designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, was originally commissioned by Harriette W. Goelet as a memorial to her husband, Robert Goelet (Columbia 1860). Typical of French's monuments, Alma Mater is rich with imagery. She sits in a klismos chair, arms stretched upward. In her right hand is a scepter which ends in four heads of wheat which hold a crown, part of the original seal of King's College. The chair arms each have a lamp which symbolizes Sapientia (Wisdom) and Doctrina (Teaching). An open Bible rests on her lap.


Low Memorial Library was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1967.


National Register #87002599 (1987)

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Taken on August 4, 2007