It’s 1914 and you’re standing on your newly purchased, densely forested block of 14 acres of land. The walk up the dirt road around your pristine tract reminds you of just how far you are from the rambunctious hustle of city life. You stand on the edge of the property and try to form a picture in your mind of what it will become.
While the exact narrative of this scene has been lost to time, one could imagine that Manhattan College’s Christian Brothers’ first encounter with what would become their new campus was likely similar to that.
When they stared into that forest, it’s unlikely they pictured the campus it is today – bursting at the seams and at the core of a lively neighborhood where the trees can (probably) be counted on two hands.
What’s more is that today’s Manhattan College sits on the brink of a new expansion. As it embarks on its campus master plan, the college is preparing to revitalize facilities and even build a new residence hall, pivoting off the strategy that began with building the Kelly Student Commons just years ago.
Looking to the future is best contextualized by examining the past, particularly, the history of the physical campus that will be experiencing a partial makeover come 2020.
What’s in a Name
Manhattan College’s moniker, despite its current location in The Bronx, is not the product of some bizarre clerical error or marketing ploy. Rather, the name is accurate to the college’s original location in the Manhattan neighborhood that is now known as Harlem.
The school was established in 1853 by the Christian Brothers, starting as a high school for underprivileged boys, seeking to enhance their learning experience by teaching a blend of practical subjects and the liberal arts. As the school grew, added college courses and expanded its reach, it took the name of Manhattan College in 1861 and was chartered by the New York State Board of Regents in 1863.
The college’s campus was tucked into the northeast corner of 131st Street and Broadway, with property extending up to 133rd Street and flanked by Old Broadway on its easternmost side. Old Broadway, a road that appears to be a meandering kink in Broadway and links 131st street and 133rd street while bypassing 132nd street, is actually “the sole survivor of the original route of the famous Bloomingdale Road,” The New York Times wrote in a piece about the college in 1925. In the 18th Century, the Bloomingdale Road was the premier route into the Upper West Side, so much so that the properties clustered around it were coined the Bloomingdale District. Only after it was repaved, widened, straightened and linked to other main roads was the artery then dubbed Broadway in 1899.
The college building was a five story brick structure facing Broadway at 131st street, and was the only major building on that lot aside from a garage. Today, that building is gone, and the lot is dotted with a gas station where the college building was likely located, small commercial buildings and a massive office structure at its northern end at 133rd Street.
While the space served the college well in its first decades, college administration recognized that additional room was needed to keep up with the pace of the college’s growth.
And to that end, they set their eyes north.
Move on Up
Before Manhattan College considered making a new home in The Bronx, college officials were actually interested in moving to Westchester County, just north of the city. One attractive property was waterfront in Irvington-on-Hudson, then a quiet town occupied by a few thousand people spread out over vast hillsides and estates. Today, Irvington’s historic charm and scenic views of the Hudson River, Palisades and Hook Mountain have landed it on a list of best places to live in Westchester County last year, according to “Westchester Magazine.”
The future of the campus in present-day Irvington’s suburban setting was almost a reality when college administrators purchased that property in the late 1890s with the intent of eventually developing it. The 65 acres, however, were subject to several development restrictions that would have made building a campus there unfeasible. Upon that realization, the college resold the property soon after its purchase.
The next option–the option ultimately selected–was a 14 acre property across from Van Cortland Park in The Bronx, the campus’s location today. Although a fraction of the size of the Irvington land, it suited what the school needed: a quiet destination for learning.
“It is on account of the subway that we were compelled to leave,” said Brother Edward (the President of the college at that time) in a 1905 article in Freeman’s Journal. “You can readily understand how difficult it is when it comes to teaching in a classroom.”
The college bought the land for just $80,000 in 1902 while it continued its normal operations in Harlem.
A Few Packs of Lucky Strikes
Just as the college today is undergoing detailed studies and analyses to determine the best steps it can take to improve the campus, the college did the same when it acquired the Van Cortland Park property over a century ago. It hired Murphy & Dana, an architecture firm, to scope out the land and perform preliminary investigations.
Interestingly, the Board of Trustees also assembled a group of alumni into an Engineering Committee that would make recommendations on how the land should be developed and how the campus could be built from their own professional expertise. The roots of deep alumni involvement and interest in the future in the college, evident to this day, can be traced back to instances such as this.
Their determinations were that the college should kick off its campus with an administration building, a high school building, a college building and a gymnasium coupled with a sports field.
Then World War I struck, and suspended the growth of the college while throngs of local young men went to fight overseas. It is for that reason, a memorial program published in 1925 by the college reads, that the college put the move to The Bronx on hold.
They were back on track in 1920, however.
First, the college addressed its most pressing roadblock: financing. Projections from 1914 put the sticker price on the desired construction at $325,000, but as time went on and the specifications for the construction became more defined, that price grew to over $2 million.
Tapping once again into its alumni network, the college launched a vigorous fundraising campaign to close the gap. With pamphlets emblazoned with “Manhattan: Makers of Men” on the front, they garnered the alumni base to contribute over $2.5 million, news clippings on the campus dedication report. The fundraising started small, with the college asking for only “one dollar a week for the young graduates – a few packs of Lucky Strikes,” the pledge pamphlet read. Included was a promise to devote one building to the alumni in exchange for their gift, the building on the north side of campus fittingly named Alumni Hall.
Now that the money was available, the next challenge arose: what would this campus look like?
Campus by Design
College administration had high standards for the aesthetics for the campus, as “something of artistic merit was sought in keeping with the beautiful background of the Fieldston residential park,” a 1924 news clipping read.
They sought to elicit the best quality plans by holding an architect competition. Each architect invited to compete sent in their plans for the campus including a high school building, a college building, a gymnasium and an administrative building. The winner, along with winning the contract to design the campus, got a $3,000 signing bonus too.
The submissions were as varied as they were creative, and indicate the many different stylistic directions the campus could have been taken in. One entry featured college buildings with ornate masonry detailing on the façade, evoking a gothic flair. Another submission located the college buildings around a quadrangle, but left one side of the quadrangle open with stairs that led down to a massive clearing of grass and athletic field space.
In the losing entry that most closely resembled the one the committee selected, the college buildings are laid out in the same fashion they are today, but with a grand staircase up from the northernmost side of the quadrangle that let to yet another quadrangle. This design also featured a chapel to be built in the future that was easily the size of a cathedral.
But the eventual winner was New York architect James O’Connor.
The popular opinion of the community, written in local papers, was that the “Georgian colonial style” of O’Connor’s buildings “were especially designed to suit the landscape.” His plan, featuring distinctive rounded arched walkways (that are now the campus’s trademark) and a clear ability to expand the campus in the future, set his design apart and landed him the gig.
Brick by Brick
Construction began on James O’Connor’s campus plan in 1922 with the laying of the cornerstone of Alumni Hall by Cardinal Hayes, class of 1888 and namesake of a present-day Bronx Catholic high school for boys. The well-documented event showed strong attendance and was momentous for the college, as it finally was beginning the work it had set out to do nearly 20 years prior.
This event set into motion a relatively speedy two to three year construction period, during which the following present-day buildings were completed: Memorial Hall, De La Salle Hall, Miguel Hall and Alumni Hall. While the buildings still stand, their uses have morphed over time to fit the needs of the college. The upper levels of Miguel Hall and De La Salle Hall were first intended to be dormitories for the few hundred resident students the college expected at the time. Now, they are offices that serve faculty and administrators. In two years from now, they may even serve a different purpose, as the campus master plan is relocating some student services offices to Thomas Hall and vacating space in Miguel Hall once again.
The main construction of the high school and college buildings was steel framing (beams, columns and girders) with concrete floor slabs and stone foundations, the building erection application permit read. Construction images from campus document nearly all stages of construction, from clearing the land to finishing the masonry.
Once completed, a dedication ceremony on May 15, 1924 officially marked the completion of the construction and the beginning of the college’s legacy in the Bronx. It eventually sold the Harlem property in early 1925 for $350,000 before making the move up north.
“This is one of the happiest moments of my life…In my student days I often dreamed of buildings like those, but I never expected to see them,” Hayes told newspapers at the ceremony.
Past Meets Present
Upon completion of the campus, the college could accommodate 2400 students and 200 residents. Today, the student body is nearly double that size and residents comprise the majority of the students here. The decision of the college to move to the Bronx certainly changed its trajectory as an institution, and demonstrates the impact of a space on a community. As the college delves into its next chapter – one of both growth and physical change – it can take a nod from where it all began.
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