THE VISIONARIES AND PLANNERS OF WHAT WOULD BECOME Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center had nowhere to look for inspiration or precedent in the 1920s, so they had to become pioneers in building a full-service academic medical center.
In 1921, the Joint Administrative Board set up by Columbia and Presbyterian Hospital appointed architect James Gamble Rogers to plan the new complex. The architect was known for his designs of dormitories and academic buildings at Yale and Northwestern universities. Rogers-designed buildings were large and made dramatic impacts on the skylines of their cities. They also had little ornamentation and boasted an efficiency of space.
To grasp the medical center infrastructure’s needs, the architect interviewed doctors, administrators, and other medical center leaders. He decided to break away from the traditional hospital layout — sprawling and low to the ground — in favor of a series of skyscrapers. He believed that, like a library, a medical center would be more efficient if certain areas were stacked on top of one another.
The architect’s first set of designs included 30-, 40-, and 50-story structures, which he called “air castles.” Other plans included hydroplane ambulances to land on the Hudson River and airplane ambulances to land on the roofs of the medical center buildings. With estimated costs reaching as high as $50 million, the project was proclaimed “out of hand” by the Joint Administrative Board, which sent the architect back to the drawing board. He returned with a scaled-down, more practical version of his idea, which had an estimated cost of about $10 million. The board approved the plan and ground was broken Jan. 31, 1925.
The nucleus of the medical center was a single structure that sat between Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue and between 165th and 168th streets. It consisted of two parallel wings running from east to west. P&S and Vanderbilt Clinic filled the northern wing; sections that ran north and south held patient wards and major teaching rooms. Rising 21 stories and holding 400 beds, Presbyterian Hospital, in the southern wing, had longer and narrower north-south sections, which also held patient wards. The two wings were bridged by a single “stem,” taken up by doctors offices. Each facility has its own entry on 168th Street, marked by a distinctive archway etched with the building’s name. Of the two separate entrances, the Joint Administrative Board said in a 1927 report, “The beauty of these two entrances lies in their extreme simplicity of design and here, as in the buildings themselves, the architecture has drawn upon the Gothic forms for inspiration.”
This first building also held other components key to both the medical school and the hospital. These included Vanderbilt Clinic, which provided outpatient care to the neighborhood population and training for medical students; the School of Dental and Oral Surgery, which filled the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors of Vanderbilt Clinic; the DeLamar Institute of Public Health, precursor to Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health; the Sloane Hospital for Women, for obstetrics patients; the Squier Urological Clinic; and Harkness Pavilion for Private Patients, which provided smaller wards and single-bed accommodations for patients who could pay more.
Anna C. Maxwell Hall was built across Fort Washington Avenue (where Milstein Hospital Building now stands) and was the first medical center building to open. Named for Anna C. Maxwell, founder of the Presbyterian Hospital Training School for Nurses (predecessor to the Columbia University School of Nursing), the hall held classrooms, housing for nursing students, an auditorium, dining room, study rooms, a library, and laundry facilities. In the lower part of the building, overlooking the Hudson River, was a swimming pool. Two wings were added in 1946, giving the building a U shape.
The Neurological Institute sat just north of Maxwell Hall. The first hospital and research center in the western hemisphere solely devoted to diseases of the nervous system, the Neurological Institute became affiliated with the medical center in 1925. The 10-story building opened in 1929. In 1958, an elevator tower was added on the building’s west side, and a two-story addition was built on its north side.
The New York State Psychiatric Institute was built on Haven Avenue. Designed by state architect Sullivan W. Jones, the building was set into the high cliff that overlooks Riverside Drive. The first 10 stories were built into the cliff, with another 10 stories above. This design allowed for a 20-story structure to reach the same heights as other medical center buildings.

Sketch of operating room
James Gamble Rogers continued to design buildings for the medical center following its 1928 opening, notably the first P&S dormitory, Bard Hall, which opened in 1931. The building, at Haven Avenue and 169th Street, was named after Dr. Samuel Bard, founder of P&S. The hall had four floors below Haven Avenue and 14 above. It had 265 single rooms, seven suites, 10 apartments, and a penthouse; among the amenities were lounges, a dining room, a cafeteria, four squash courts, a gym, and a pool. Originally designed for male medical students only, living space on the first three floors was allocated to women in 1932. The call for additional housing was answered in 1968, when construction began on Bard-Haven Towers, a three-tower apartment building just north of Bard Hall. In 2001, a residence for postdocs opened at 390 Fort Washington Avenue. In 1931, medical center benefactor Edward Harkness contributed funds to build an eye hospital equipped with laboratories and other resources for the advanced study of ophthalmology. The Harkness Eye Institute, another James Gamble Rogers design, is a nine-story, U-shaped structure that sits on the east side of Fort Washington Avenue, near the corner of 165th Street. It opened in 1933.
Babies Hospital was invited to become part of the medical center in 1925, and it moved to Broadway and 167th Street from its Lexington Avenue location in 1929. The hospital, established to provide medical services specifically to children, consolidated with Presbyterian Hospital in 1943. Construction on an addition — Babies Hospital
South — began in 1966 and was built in stages as funding allowed. The final dedication was held 10 years later.
In 1936, a three-story addition was made to Harkness Pavilion, and a three-story service building was built for radiology and therapy services. Two years later, floors were added to the northwest portion of the P&S building to create new laboratories.
The Washington Heights Health Center was built by the city in 1938 and 1939 at the corner of 168th Street and Broadway. The city building also housed public health faculty and offices.
Although construction at the medical center stopped during World War II, overall progress continued in the 1940s and 1950s. A residence for graduate nurses was built in 1947. The Edward S. Harkness Memorial Hall, located at the corner of 165th Street and Riverside Drive, was dedicated Nov. 10, 1947.
The cornerstone for the Francis Delafield Hospital was laid in 1948. The 300-bed New York City hospital for cancer care and research, named for an 1863 P&S graduate who later joined the faculty as a professor of pathology, had three floors of lab space plus in- and outpatient treatment areas. Columbia faculty staffed the hospital on Fort Washington Avenue to the south of 165th Street and conducted research there. Delafield Hospital opened in August 1950 but the city closed it in 1976.
In September 1950, five additional floors were opened atop Vanderbilt Clinic. This space was used to house clinics, offices, and the new Institute of Cancer Research. In 1952, the Pauline A. Hartford Memorial Chapel, an interdenominational chapel in the medical center garden, was dedicated. The chapel was a gift of John A. Hartford, chairman of the board of A&P — the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Mr. Hartford’s wife, Pauline, was a surgical patient at the medical center shortly before her death in 1948. Mr. Hartford died in 1951.
The hospital’s administration grew so much that a central services building was constructed. It opened in October 1962 and continues to house support services for the hospital, including the mail room.
The next major addition was the William Black Medical Research Building, developed in response to the demand for more research space. The 18-story building at the southeast corner of Fort Washington Avenue and 168th Street was the medical center’s first building devoted to lab space. Opened in September 1965 and dedicated in January 1966, the building was funded through a $5 million donation from William Black, president of Chock full o’Nuts coffee company and founder and president of the Parkinson’s Research Foundation.
The P&S Alumni Auditorium, financed by alumni contributions, was built along with Black but dedicated earlier, on May 1, 1965.
The need for a facility where the P&S faculty could hold office hours for ambulatory patients was “urgent” by the time Atchley Pavilion was dedicated in December 1968. Located at 161 Fort Washington Avenue, the pavilion contains administrative and doctors offices, clinical laboratories, and specialized ambulatory care centers. The pavilion was named for Dr. Dana W. Atchley, a P&S faculty legend who by the time the building opened had 52 years of active service to the university. In the late 1990s, the structure was renamed the Herbert Irving Pavilion at the Atchley Building to honor the most generous medical center benefactor.
As the 1970s began, the library’s inadequacies become apparent. By that time, more than 150,000 volumes had to be stored at three locations away from campus. In response, ground was broken in 1973 for a new 20-story building at 701 W. 168th St. The Hammer Health Sciences Center opened in April 1976, housing the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library with two levels above ground and two below. The building also has four floors above the library with classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, and the Riverview Lounge, a popular location for campus events. Modern research facilities are located on the remaining floors. The building is named for Armand Hammer, oil tycoon, philanthropist and a 1921 graduate of P&S, and his father, Julius, a 1902 P&S graduate.
The year 1973 was marked by two expansions on the medical center campus. Vanderbilt Clinic opened a new lobby facing Broadway. Several months later, new emergency facilities, including a relocated ambulance bay on 168th Street, opened.
The Lawrence C. Kolb Research Annex, built adjacent to the Psychiatric Institute, opened in 1982 to provide expanded facilities for PI researchers.
In 1985, ground was broken for Milstein Hospital Building, a 10-story, 715-bed facility at 177 Fort Washington Ave. that was at the time New York City’s largest hospital building. Milstein houses patient rooms, surgical suites, intensive care units, and imaging suites. The medical center — and Milstein’s architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — received an Excellence in Masonry Award from Masonry Institutes of New York and Long Island for providing a “successful example of how a new building sensitively relates to the existing campus yet goes beyond to a point in a new design direction.” The design included the construction of skyways over Fort Washington Avenue to connect the new structure with the old Presbyterian Hospital building. Bringing in the new, however, meant that Maxwell Hall, the mainstay of nursing education since the medical center’s opening in 1928, had to be torn down, along with the Edward S. Harkness Memorial Hall. When the 1984 fall term began, nursing students took up residence in the Georgian Building, located next to the Armory on 168th Street. A model of Maxwell Hall, commissioned and donated by a School of Nursing alumna, sits in the nursing school’s lobby.
One of Columbia’s most ambitious projects moved the boundaries of the medical center to the east. Development of Audubon Biomedical Science and Technology Park began in 1993, and the first building, the Mary Woodard Lasker Biomedical Research Building, located at 166th Street and Broadway, opened in 1995. The Lasker Building provides research space for start-up biotechnology companies. The second Audubon Research Park building, the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, located at 1150 St. Nicholas Avenue (at 168th Street), opened in 1997. It houses the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, the Columbia Genome Center, other research laboratories, and the Associates in Internal Medicine primary care practice. Audubon Park is envisioned as expanding into a five-building research park.
Proposed medical center site in 1915, from the intersection of 165th and Broadway
In 1994, construction began on a new building for the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Located at 1051 Riverside Drive, along the Hudson River, the six-floor, 312,000-square-foot building opened in 1998. The main entrance opens into a large atrium that essentially divides the building in half, with laboratories to the north and inpatient/outpatient facilities and classrooms to the south. The institute is connected to the rest of the campus by two enclosed pedestrian bridges that link the building to the Milstein Hospital Building and the institute’s Kolb Annex. The Mailman School of Public Health, previously scattered throughout several medical center buildings, is now consolidating in the old but refurbished building the Psychiatric Institute vacated.
“On the whole, the medical center’s architecture is an unappreciated historic resource,” says Andrew Dolkart, the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “The buildings make a bold architectural statement, combining the needs of medicine with the skyscraper form typical of New York. The buildings were designed to appear as if they were growing out of the cliffs along the Hudson, with low-rise ‘foothills,’ such as the handsome Eye Institute, ascending to the cliffs of the Harkness Pavilion.”
Two construction projects under way at the medical center in 2003 near completion. The Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York broke ground in November 2000. Morgan Stanley employees contributed nearly half of the funds needed for the $120 million facility, which will stand 10 stories high and adjoin the existing Children’s Hospital (formerly Babies Hospital). The new facility will offer extended outpatient services and complementary research and diagnostic services. Expected to open in November 2003, the children’s hospital will have 100 medical-surgical beds, 41 critical care beds, and 50 neonatal critical care beds. The building’s architects, Davis Brody Bond, designed the building’s exterior to look like an extension of the existing hospital, but masonry gables and a copper-finish roof give the structure its own distinct identity.
Audubon Park’s third building, the Irving Cancer Research Center, is expected to open in early 2004. Named for food distribution executive and Columbia supporter Herbert Irving, the building will have nine stories of research space, underground parking, and clinical facilities, including a comprehensive breast cancer screening facility.
The Columbia Health Sciences strategic plan unveiled in 2002 includes a framework to guide the medical center’s immediate and long-range physical development over the next 20 to 25 years. It provides a vision of the future that could parallel the growth of the medical center’s first 75 years.

Aileen Moroney, an Inwood native, is a free-lance writer living in New York City.

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