CCNY Launches New Website To Commemorate The Centennial Of Its Historic, Landmarked Campus
The City College of New York (CCNY) recently launched a new website, “100 Years on Hamilton Heights,” to commemorate the Centennial of its Campus in Harlem. The CCNY Campus, which was designed by George B. Post, is considered one of the finest examples of neo-Gothic architecture at any academic institution in the United States. The structures are on national and state registers of historic buildings.
Using historic and contemporary photographs, the website tells the story of the Campus’ development, its role in CCNY’s growth, its restoration and what is in store for its second century. In addition, the site contains a bulletin board where alumni may post reminiscences and anecdotes from their student years as well as photographs taken on campus.
“In developing this campus 100 years ago, New York City’s leaders made a powerful statement that City College students, who came mainly from working class and immigrant families, deserved a ‘plant second to none,’” said CCNY President Dr. Gregory H. Williams. “This is still true of our students today. By restoring The City College Campus to its original glory, today’s leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to that ideal.”
CCNY acquired the site of its campus, stretching along Convent Avenue from W. 138th Street to W. 140th Street, in the 1890s after having outgrown its original home, the Free Academy building at 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue. In 1898, George B. Post, whose buildings include the New York Stock Exchange, was selected as architect.
However, actual construction did not begin until 1903, due to a heated debate among College trustees and administrators over the future of the school’s curriculum and whether to erect a single structure or a campus with several buildings. The final design included five buildings: Shepard Hall, Townsend Harris Hall, Wingate Hall, Baskerville Hall and Compton Hall.
For the buildings’ facades, Post selected Manhattan schist, a dark gray native stone with white terra cotta trim applied to the windows, doors and other architectural details. These details are the buildings’ most distinguishing features, and they include over 600 grotesque figures relating to the buildings’ academic functions.
Within four years of the Campus’ completion, CCNY’s enrollment had grown to almost 8,000 collegiate, preparatory and extension students. The original campus in Midtown soldiered on as the home of the City College School of Commerce, or “City Downtown,” which would later become Baruch College. Also during the early 20th Century, CCNY opened a Brooklyn campus that would be the progenitor of Brooklyn College.
Several smaller projects during the first half of the 20th Century expanded the main Campus. These culminated with the 1950 acquisition of the old Manhattanville College campus, which extended CCNY south to W. 130th Street.
Unfortunately, the buildings Post designed could not withstand the harsh New York environment due to flaws in the structural design. Their exterior walls supported steel beams, but the terra cotta proved too brittle to function as part of a load-bearing system and the mortar joints were too rigid to absorb building movement. Within two decades, cracks had formed. This allowed water to seep in and rust the steel beams.
By the mid-1980s, the situation had become critical, particularly for Shepard Hall’s main tower. Ultimately, the top 60 feet of the tower would have to be taken down and rebuilt.
A solution was devised by architect Carl Stein that called for a “thin-shell cladding system” with the ornamental elements attached to new, weatherproof structural walls using stainless and galvanized steel brackets. The terra cotta was replaced with glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, a material that could replicate complex forms and withstand harsh weather. Flexible sealant joints, which accommodated movement, were used in place of mortar.
Ultimately, 70,000 pieces would be needed for Shepard Hall plus tens of thousands more for the other buildings. More than 10,000 different shapes were cast, including over 1,000 gargoyles and grotesques.
The project, which included a new roof over the Great Hall of Shepard Hall, reconstructed facades for Shepard and the other four buildings, and restoration of the three original campus gates, extended over 20 years. It is largely complete, save for a few sections of Shepard Hall’s exterior along St. Nicholas Avenue. For the first time in many years, none of the original buildings are clad in scaffolding.
“100 Years on Hamilton Heights” was produced and written by Ellis Simon, CCNY Director of Public Relations, and designed by Angela Franklin, CCNY Director of Web-Based Communications and Marketing. Visit www1.ccny.cuny.edu/ci/centennial.
For 160 years, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. Over 14,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Architecture, the School of Education, the Grove School of Engineering and the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education.