The 'Low' down

Five things you probably didn't know about Low Library:

1) It didn't actually sink into the ground.

I'm not sure where I first heard it, but this story is nearly ubiquitous. Maybe it was during a campus tour? No offense, URC. Anyway the story goes like this:

"Yeah and its really cool—see Low Library up there?  Apparently, apparently ... Low Library was planned as an actual library but never got a chance to be one. Yeah, I know, I know ... right?! But apparently when they started moving in the books, the architects realized that they hadn't planned for that extra weight. The building literally started sinking into the ground!! Amazing, right!!" —naïve tour guide ~2010

Low Library actually was a library, from its construction in 1895 to 1935. Its role as a student-serving building ended only when the administration realized they needed a bigger library. Enter Butler.

220px-Low_Library2 Low Library—c. 1910

2) Its designers were ballers

Class of 2014: how many of you were sober enough to remember our freshman year Bacchanal, when Snoop Dog (a.k.a. Snoop Lion) tried to divide the crowd between those to the left and those to the right of that "White-house looking thing"? Turns out, he wasn't that far off.

The architectural firm McKim, Mead & White were also responsible, among other designs, for building the 1910 facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, eleven branches of the New York Public Library and—wait for it—neo-classical renovations and expansions to the White House in 1920. Harvard ain't got nothing on that.

3) Enter Socrates and Plato

School of Athens—Raffaello Urbino School of Athens—Raffaello Urbino

Some more on the design: McKim, Mead & White designed the 116th street campus to look like an "academic village." Look at another academic village: Raphael's School of Athens. See where the Low Plaza pattern comes from now? According to its National Historic Places registry form, summarized here:

The building ... features windows modeled on those of the Baths of Diocletian. The columns on the library's front facade are in the Ionic order, suited for institutions of arts and letters ... And, 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 Athena, modeled after the Minerve du Collier at the Louvre and donated by Jonathan Ackerman Coles of the Columbia College Class of 1864, an alumnus of Columbia's Philolexian Society.

Go Philolexians! We're not completely pagan, though. The building was also designed in the shape of a Greek Cross, the symbol of Eastern Orthodoxy. The four points of knowledge---Law, Philosophy, Medicine, and Theology---mark the four points inside.

greek_cross The Greek Cross

4) It was fully funded by University President Seth Low

You think its difficult for your student group to get an extra allocation to throw that sushi-dinner fundraiser? Try asking for $1 million in 1895 dollars ($26,450,000 in 2009 dollars) to build a freaking cornerstone building. Current University President Seth Low wanted to build the Library in memory of his father, Abiel Abbot Low, but faced—surprise, surprise—Columbia bureaucracy.

Instead of backing down—or throwing a couple of bake-sale fundraisers and then giving up when realizing that "bakin' and sellin' is hard work!"—he financed it, himself. Excuse me, President Bollinger? My building's radiator is pretty messed up *cough cough cough*.

5) There are secret tunnels, somewhere, underneath the Library

Allegedly, if you could work your way into Low after-hours, by asking the guards nicely to let you use the bathroom or something, you could work your way up to a small window through which you could get to the roof.

But even cooler are the secret tunnels that apparently exist underneath Low. During the 1968 protests, students took over the building, and barricaded themselves in the President's office. Although the building was effectively shut down, Columbia Daily Spectator and WKCR—shout out to adventurous journalism—were still able to get updated stories, often days before major news outlets. A plausible explanation is the existence of a series of tunnels. Maybe they were a leftover from the part of the Manhattan Project, which was conducted underneath campus?


Columbia and her campus hold a dear place in all of our hearts. Whether we'll admit it easily—given the stress of our packed schedules—we cannot deny the marvel and wonder we feel daily for our Alma Mater.

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alum posted on

Columbia's campus is truly beautful and historic.

anon posted on

Low Library is the most recognized building in all academia.

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