The complex conception of Columbia’s most coveted residence
By Jessica Call & Joseph Rabinovitsj
Lofted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, a movie theater, a pub, large common spaces, a student-run grocery store, and a gymnasium—could anyone ask for more in a college dorm? And while none of these amenities describe East Campus today, they each appeared and disappeared in the time between EC’s first proposal in 1956 and eventual groundbreaking in 1978.
The Concept of Columbia
The original plan for East Campus, proposed in 1956, was for a dorm for graduate students. Following the architectural trend of creating massive superblocks, Columbia planned to raze all of the buildings between 116th and 118th streets to make room for a new Law School and a complex for faculty offices and classrooms. The new dorm on site would, according to the New York Herald, “make 500 John Jay rooms available for undergraduate students.”
Law School architects Harrison and Abramovitz received the original commission for EC. Early plans indicated that the recently completed Carman Hall (then called New Hall) would serve as the model for the dorm. The design shifted frequently due to delays in fundraising and changes in other planned buildings for the site, including the International Affairs Building. At one point, according to the Spectator, EC was to consist of four individual buildings connected at street level, with each building containing singles with individual bathrooms but neither lounges nor kitchens.
Fundraising difficulties and the construction of Dodge Fitness Center, a necessary response to the crumbling Morningside Gymnasium, further delayed the East Campus project. The university didn’t seriously begin work on the structure until 1973, four years after the original expected completion date. A space crunch lead Columbia to reassign EC as an undergraduate dormitory in April 1976. The building would be designed by the architectural firm Gwathmey-Siegel, with an expected price tag of $15.5 million.
Predictably, design battles ensued. The only point of agreement, it seemed, was that each bedroom should have a view of the park. That was about it. The Alumni Association wanted fewer rooms with larger common spaces, the administration wanted more rooms at the expense of social areas, and students wanted (as it seems we often do) a community hub.
What sort of facility could serve as such? A fundraising booklet for the new dormitory, titled “To Assure the Quality of Life,” shows a litany of amenities proposed by a student committee, including a pub, theater, and space for student groups. East Campus, according to the pamphlet, was to embody the “concept of Columbia, akin to the study halls of Oxford, but unique to the urban expanse of the greatest metropolis in the world.” It would replicate New York’s “famous brownstones” and “high-rise monoliths.”
The Concept of Compromise
In typical Columbia fashion, though, increasing costs led the University to scrap the proposed 21,000 square-foot student activities center in the basement. (The empty space became CCE.) William McGill, then Columbia’s President, justified not building the student space over reducing expenditures on materials because he didn’t want “a cheap residence hotel.” Community, it seems, was a necessary sacrifice to avoid “aesthetic compromises.”
Of course, budgetary realities would eventually mandate aesthetic compromises. Lofty ceilings and large windows quickly became too expensive. Townhouses were initially supposed to open on to a large, open courtyard, but it was shrunk, and the houses fell into the perpetual gloom under which they rest today.
Some aesthetic aspects of the project, however, managed to rise above such petty concerns as well-lit rooms or common space. Take the tiles: the reddish material that covers EC is not just any tile, but special, German-made tile that requires surprising amounts of finesse to install. Additionally, the administration updated Carman’s prison-drab white washed brick interior walls; EC’s rooms have a nicer, wallboard construction.
By fall of 1980, the construction was almost complete. In November, a Spectator reporter trudged through the incomplete building and noted “missing walls, bare fixtures, mud-puddles in kitchens and bedrooms, missing toilets, dirty buckets, coiled wires, stacked tiles, bags of sand,” and more. Noting the dearth of bathrooms, he added, “None of the architects, it seems, ever had to jockey with five people for the toilet at 8 a.m.”
EC finally opened in January 1981, after a 25-year-long gestation period. Opened, however, did not imply finished. The first residents shared their suites with “live wires, construction debris, erratic telephones, and muddy bathtubs,” reported the Spectator. Utilities were sporadic and the construction equipment littering exits was declared a fire hazard. Rooms flooded. Poor garbage disposal resulted in extreme rodent problems. Residents posted lists of problems on suite doors for workers to fix. Welcome home, indeed.
Security proved troublesome. Door security was lax, and construction workers made off with supplies as casually as first years snag silverware from John Jay. The Amsterdam overpass at night was a frequent site of muggings. Students petitioned to have lights installed on the bridge, but also tossed furniture from high windows and removed elevator buttons and stair railings. True to 1980s New York, graffiti was ubiquitous.
Kenneth Stuzin, CC ’86 and currently a financial analyst, lived in EC during his sophomore and junior years with his frat, Phi Gamma Delta. He described his campus life as full of parties and “little moral oversight” from the administration.
EC’s isolation, which enabled its vibrant party culture, also contributed to an aura of danger because of its proximity to Morningside Park, which was perceived as more dangerous then than now. David Rakoff, CC ’86, a late alum and writer, told New York Magazine that during his first year at Columbia, a rumor circulated about an EC student who “narrowly avoided the bullet that came through his window and lodged itself in the plaster above his head. The shot had come from—where else?—Morningside Park.” Stuzin echoed the sentiment about the park, saying that Columbia’s orientation advice to new students was: “If you walked into Morningside Park after dark, you would die.”
Students, while wary of Morningside, seemed to take the rumored danger lightly. Stuzin recalled evenings spent with his fraternity brothers on EC’s roof, looking over the park and “work[ing on their] golf games by hitting balls” into the distance. For Stuzin, Columbia and, by extension, New York, was a playground—bad things don’t happen to students like us.
Despite the looming specter of Morningside Park, it would seem that EC’s first real scandal came from within the residence hall itself. On October 10, 1985, Sarah M. Thomas, a SEAS student, was stabbed in the face, chest, abdomen, and legs in her EC single. Her attacker was 21 year old David Fillyaw, a friend of another EC resident who had been signed into the dorm the previous evening. Thomas and her suitemates reportedly had a party in their dorm where Fillyaw and Thomas are believed to have met. Fillyaw used a nine-inch butcher knife to break into the locked dorm and to attack Thomas, who survived after plastic surgery and replacements for a lacerated kidney and punctured lung. Fillyaw was arrested and indicted for three sex attacks in addition to the attempted murder of Sarah Thomas. In response, Columbia updated security protocols to include keeping guests’ IDs at the entrance desk, so to maintain a better record of those entering and exiting the building.
Surprisingly, few alums recall the incident, and it didn’t receive a lot of media play. Stuzin attributes this collective forgetfulness to a general sense of invincibility. “We thought ourselves immortal, and frankly, given our often less than decorous behavior late at night, I’m not sure even local thugs wanted to deal with us.”
The first East Campus residents were pioneers, journeying from the pristine McKim, Mead & White main campus onto a monstrous architectural feat resting at the edge of Columbia’s forbidden forest, Morningside Park. The apartment style dorm seemed one step closer to The Real World, lurking beyond the 116th gates and graduation. But for a time in EC, the Real World seemed at a remove: they were still students, and it couldn’t get them yet.
Additional reporting by Daniel Stone.