Claremont Hall, newly the tallest building in the district.
Photo: Scott Heins
It’s always surprising to discover that New York still has topography – that the old hills and ravines that Lenape trod on still live on under their coat of asphalt. The construction of the street grid in the 19th century blew up cliffs, leveled slopes and buried streams, but incompletely. Anyone with an infirmity or a hangover records the slope of an uphill block. Today, the word “Heights” in a neighborhood name conjures up revolutionary battles but only acquires palpable meaning during a flood, when stormwater flows down to the less favored lowlands. Rarely do these outlines remain sharp enough to give a development of character and form.
Langston Hughes, writing in the 1940s, saw that topography could dig a social abyss. Harlem’s elite, he pointed out, lived on Sugar Hill, “that alluring bluff-and-walk climb along Upper Edgecombe Avenue overlooking the polo fields…But under the hill of Eighth Avenue, Lenox and Fifth, there are places like this – dark, unpleasant houses with steep stairs and narrow hallways, where the rooms are too small, the ceilings are too low and the rents are too (These days, technology has taken over where geology left off, plunging the ultra-privileged into the crow’s nests of downtown and downtown Brooklyn, so far above the street that the views turn the city below as flat as a pool table.)
At the turn of the 20th century, Morningside Heights also transformed literal nobility into a metaphorical kind. The broad hill that rises slowly along the crest of Broadway to a plateau at West 116th Street, then descends in steep escarpments to the north, east, and west, represents the Acropolis of New York , a mountain crowned with temples and libraries. Columbia University, Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Manhattan School of Music cluster where physical elevation might give a boost to intellectual and spiritual aspiration. Even in Colombia colonized the trough where Manhattanville plunging beneath the Hudson River overpasses, Morningside Heights has retained its contemplative atmosphere. Bulky stone buildings, boundary walls, gates that open onto lawns and walkways – these markers of institutional gravity are interspersed with quiet residential blocks.
Above all that gravity fog at the top of the mountain loom a pair of landmarks: the spiers of Riverside Church and St. John the Divine.
At least, that was the case in the past. Now these stone wells of establishment piety have been topped by two new bellless towers which serve the same function they serve wherever the horizon is crowded: they are for the wealthy to buy, sell, possibly live. The 33-story Vandewater opened last year on West 122nd Street, its limestone mass striped by INC Architecture and Design and SLCE rising beside the Jewish Theological Seminary. A few blocks away, Robert AM Stern’s 41-story Claremont, a neo-Gothic vertical extension of the Union Theological Seminary, redraws the hilltop silhouette of the neighborhood.
The new real estate serves to strengthen the institutions it overshadows, as both seminaries realized they could fund their future by foregoing valuable land and even more valuable air rights. Claremont Hall, the tallest building at the highest point of the heights, is designed to merge at street level with the gray stone of the English Perpendicular style of the Union Theological Seminary. Limestone trim, casement windows, vertical brick rows and expertly choreographed setbacks evoke the glory days of luxury Art Deco, when American architects deployed an arsenal of Italianate and Medieval Revival styles. to ennoble their skyscrapers. Stern’s Tower strives to create the illusion that it was there all along, or simply the belated completion of a plan that was inherent from the start. UTS Professor Daniel Johnson Fleming reported in 1908, even as the campus was under construction, that the verticality of the architecture implied more to come. “The buttresses and the towers… go beyond the line of the façade and thus increase the shadow contrasts. Rising from the towers, graceful finials invite aspirations to soar even higher. But maybe he didn’t mean this much higher.
The old Claremont Hall building serves as the base for the new tower.
Photo-Illustration: Binyan Studios
Claremont Hall tries to win on both counts: dominate quietly. It covers a district which is intellectually pioneering but, with some exceptions, architecturally retrograde. The lower part of the tower serves the academic needs of the seminary; the rest is geared towards the global market, and the hope is to fully combine the two goals. This attempt at harmony, however, is undermined by the mountainous mass of the new addition, which appears to have burst from the bedrock like a missile from a buried silo, leaving a heap of elegant remains at its feet.
The new campus hall of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Photo: Michael Moran
The Vandewater performs a similar act of semi-self-effacement. Clad in a pinstriped limestone facade, it’s a refreshing detour from the glass straws, slabs and prisms that have epitomized the high life for the past 20 years. The building has the virtue of being next to the Jewish Theological Seminary, rather than inside. JTS demolished a library it considered inconvenient and too large, partly to pave the way for a profitable deal and partly to make way for an indoor campus redesigned by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
A terraced courtyard on the reimagined JTS campus.
Photo: Michael Moran
This is where the business pays off, in a suite of sensibly composed two-story spaces tucked into the courtyard and stitched to the original arcade. A copper-clad roof structure occupies part of a landscaped upper terrace, and its clerestory window floods the lobby below with indirect light. Sunlight also streams into the auditorium through inset beveled windows that narrow and turn corners, as if to slow the path of daylight. If the towers mimic history while obscuring it, Williams and Tsien’s renovation treats it as collaborator and inspiration, bridging delicate discontinuities, inserting a new, more efficient library, and nurturing a contemplative atmosphere without adding “Just for fun”. glare. This approach externalizes the greatest urban impact: let others build upwards so that we can build inwards. Does it also represent a betrayal, a sacrifice of the public sphere to the private needs of the institution? Maybe, but we’ll get used to it.
It’s an old, old story. Around the time these academic institutions began ogling Morningside Heights, Trinity Church on Wall Street lost its primacy on the lower Manhattan skyline. The pointed spire that greeted those sailing into the harbor was swallowed up by the first series of commercial skyscrapers. Religion gives way to profit, writing on the clouds a truer portrait of the New York soul. Our ancestors made peace with that, then forgot about the Park Row Building that supplanted Trinity Church on the horizon, and finally let the Singer Building, briefly the tallest in the world, sink out of sight. It’s amazing the trend took so long to come to Morningside Heights. Today, the region’s heavyweights are bolstering their college futures and at the same time pushing their neighborhood toward ever-more uniform kindness, a process that will continue until the last nugget of salable square footage is extracted from the Mountain top. Those who see the icons of their youth erased by the new arrivals ask: “Is nothing sacred? The answer, as always, is “Are you kidding?”