Historical Significance

The architectural history of Morningside Heights is unique among New York neighborhoods because of the distinctive circumstances of its development. Though home to a few scattered mansions, large sections of the Heights remained undeveloped until 1816 when the New York Society Hospital relocated its Bloomingdale Insane Asylum from its overcrowded downtown quarters to spacious new ones, sited where its patients could benefit from salubrious river breezes, walks, and gardens.  The asylum remained the solitary institutional occupant of the Heights until 1837 when the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum obtained some of their land.

These two institutions dominated the Heights until the New Croton Aqueduct was constructed, beginning about 1870, but not opening until 1890.  Before then, however, plans were being made for the district.  The illustrious landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned by the City to design two parks, which now constitute the eastern and western boundaries of the neighborhood.  Morningside Park was so named by Olmsted, due to the east facing precipitous rock formation forming the base of the plateau that is the Heights. Eventually, the name was attached to the entire neighborhood.

The next wave of institutions came in the 1880s and 90s, after construction had begun on the extension of the IRT subway line, but before its opening in 1904, which ensured the future residential development of the Heights.  In 1887, the Orphanage sold its land to the Episcopal Church for the construction of its Cathedral of St John the Divine.  In 1891, the Asylum sold land to Columbia College.  When the Asylum moved to White Plains in 1894, construction in the Heights could begin.  The College and Cathedral were joined in short order by a remarkable assemblage of institutions addressing the needs of the body, the mind, and the soul. Both Saint Luke’s Hospital and Teachers College purchased land from the Asylum in 1892.  They were joined by Barnard College for Women, Horace Mann School, Jewish Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Juilliard School of Music (whose buildings became the eventual home of the Manhattan School of Music), and lastly, Riverside Church, in 1927.

Most of Morningside Heights was developed in a concentrated burst of growth between 1900 and 1915, galvanized by the advent of the IRT subway line. This compressed timeline fostered a variety of architectural styles and social and economic distinctions within a consistent physical framework. By WWI, Morningside Heights had emerged as New York City’s first middle-class apartment house neighborhood. Upper middle-class families settled into architecturally impressive apartment buildings along Riverside Drive, Cathedral Parkway, Broadway and Claremont Avenue. Less prosperous middle-class households moved into more modest but comfortable six to eight story buildings on the side streets and Morningside Drive. Apartment buildings for lower middle-class families appeared along Amsterdam Avenue and some side streets. Clusters of single-family row houses, which have since been broken up into apartments, were built on side streets.

The last stage of the Heights’ development occurred in the 1950s, after land was “cleared” by urban renewal.  Grant Houses, named for General Ulysses S. Grant whose monumental tomb dominates the northwestern edge of the neighborhood, consists of nine buildings, 13 and 21-stories tall with 1,940 apartments housing an estimated 4,519 residents. Completed in 1957, the buildings are on a site bordered by West 123rd and West 125th Streets, Morningside Avenue and Broadway. Opening the same year as Grant Houses, Morningside Gardens is a private housing cooperative of six buildings of 21 stories each for a total of 980 apartments.  The complex was constructed for the middle class, employing the then current concept of towers in the park, and using public funds for construction.

With its multiple institutions and its elevated location on a narrow rocky plateau of Manhattan schist extending about 2000 feet between the cliffs of what are now Riverside and Morningside Parks, Morningside Heights has earned its moniker as the  Acropolis of America.  But it remains today essentially a residential neighborhood interwoven with institutions that continue to make significant contributions to the nation’s intellectual, religious, scientific and artistic life.


1821    Bloomingdale Insane Asylum opened in MH

1843    Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum opened in MH

1870    113th St Gatehouse of Croton Aqueduct constructed

First use of term Morning Side

1873    Olmsted commissioned to design both Riverside and Morningside Parks and

Cathedral incorporated

1889    Competition for design of cathedral

1892    Cornerstone of Cathedral laid

Columbia purchases portion of Bloomingdale Insane Asylum

St Luke’s purchases land; Ernest Flagg wins competition

Teachers College buys land; William Potter appointed architect

1893        McKim Mead and White appointed architects for Columbia

1894:   MMW submit plans

Main Hall and Macy hall completed at Teachers College

Construction begins on first group of speculative row houses

1895    Barnard College purchases land on MH; Charles Rich appointed architect

1896    St Luke’s opens on MH

1897    Low Library, Schermerhorn, Fayerweather, Havemeyer and Mathematics completed. Classes begin at Columbia College

Milbank and Brinkerhoff Halls completed and classes begin at Barnard

Grant’s Tomb completed

Milbank Hall completed at TC

1901    Horace Mann School and Whittier hall completed at TC

1903:   Classes begin at JTS at 123rd St

1904    IRT subway begins service beneath Broadway

Institute of Musical Art established

1905    Union Theological Seminary purchases land on MH

37 new apartment buildings begun on MH

1906    St Luke’s Plant Pavilion completed

1909    Institute of Musical Art purchases land on MH, Donn Barber appointed architect

Construction begins on Eglise de Notre Dame

35 new apartment buildings begun (incl some on RSD and Claremont

1911    Initial construction completed at St John the Divine

Heins and La Farge removed as architect; Ralph Adam Cram appointed

1912    Avery hall and President’s house completed at Columbia

Broadway Presbyterian Church completed

1913    Synod House and Choir School completed on cathedral grounds

1919    Columbia and TC purchase first apartment buildings in MH

1924    International House opens

1925    John D Rockefeller buys MH site for Riverside Church

1926    Allen and Collins and Henry C Pelton appointed architects for Riverside Church

1927    Casa Italiana completed at Columbia

1928    Scrymser Pavilion completed at St Luke’s

1934    Butler Library completed at Columbia

1941    Nave and west front of cathedral dedicated; construction stops as WWII begins

1947    14 MH institutions organize MH, Inc.

1957    Morningside gardens Apt Complex completed

1958    Interchurch opens

1967    St Hilda’s and St Hugh’s opens

1968    Columbia begins construction of gymnasium in MS Park; CU occupied by student protesters

IM Pei commissioned to prepare master plan for Columbia

1970    Bank Street College of education opens

School of International Affairs opens

1978        Revival of construction at Cathedral announced

1981    East Campus Housing completed at Columbia

1989    Sulzberger Hall completed at Barnard

1996    Ferris booth demolished, construction begun on Lerner Student Center

1997    Exterior of dome restored at Cathedral

Designs prepared for CU dormitory on Broadway and 113th