Morningside Heights Historic Neighborhood

Columbia University - St. John the Divine - Riverside Church

Categories: What to see - Neighborhoods

Columbia University - Brief History

Columbia University was founded as King's College in 1754 during King George II's ruling. His intention was to educate young people in learning languages, arts, and sciences. The first president was Dr. Samuel Johnson, an Anglican pastor, and the first-class comprised of 8 men included some old New York elite names like Verplanck, Van Cortlandt, and Bayard, was held in the Trinity Church School.

Among the first students, we find Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. As many as 93 Nobel Prize Winners have taught or graduated from Columbia University during the years.

After the Revolution, the college took the name of Columbia and entered what could be called a period of "intellectual hibernation" until the 19th century. In 1814, the administrators applied for state funding given the University precarious financial situation but instead received a plot of land that extended from 47th to 51st Street in what is today known as Midtown West. At that time the area was far away from the city center and seemed to have little value but proved to be a great deal over time given that the land was first leased to Rockefeller where he built the Rockefeller Center and then, in 1985, sold to the Rockefeller Group for $400 million.

In 1857, the University moved to 49th and 50th Street between Madison and what is now Park Avenue and remained there until 1897 when it moved permanently to Morningside Heights. In 1902, Nicholas Murry Butler became the president and under his leadership, Columbia University achieved the reputation that still maintains today -- one of the most prestigious and famous universities in the world.

Today Columbia University, in addition to being one of the most respectable universities, is also one of the richest ones and continues to invest in projects growing its community. One of its latest projects,  Manhattanville, has seen the construction of a new campus and new departments in the Harlem West where we can also find one of the latest projects by the renowned Italian Architect Renzo Piano.

The most important specializations are Medicine, Law, Economics, Journalism, and Architecture.

The School of Journalism was founded in 1912 by Joseph Pulitzer and is considered the most prestigious in the nation.

Frederick A.P. Barnard, nominated president of Columbia in 1864, was the one who promoted and obtained funds to establish a College for Women to which, albeit very reluctantly, the administrators finally agreed. Barnard College was built in 1889 extending from 116th to 120th St in the West Side of Manhattan. The formal union between Barnard College and Columbia University only occurred in 1983 after many failed negotiations.

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

It is the site of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. Although it's a Protestant Church, it addresses and welcomes all the faithfuls of the world. It is located on 112th street and Amsterdam Avenue in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. Construction started in 1892 and it had many interruptions and still today the Church is not actually fully completed. It is considered one of the most famous cathedrals in America and the largest although it remains unfinished to this day which warranted the nickname "St. John the Unfinished". The first religious service took place immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

In addition to being a religious institution, it is definitely a civic institution where events and programs dedicated to acting and visual arts find space. Some of the most important and popular events in New York City are held in this cathedral, such as the free concert of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Memorial Day and the New Year's Eve concert for peace.

Interesting are the "readings" we found in the outside columns of the Cathedral (by the main and side entrances) some of which were completed back in 1977 and still seem to anticipate future events unbeknownst at the time of their conception. In one column, for example, the fall of Wall Street is clearly visible while in another the destruction of the Twin Towers can also be seen. Curious right?


How to visit the Cathedral of St. John The Divine:

The Cathedral is open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm for prayer and meditation.
Visiting hours:
Monday to Saturday: from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Sunday from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm
There are two tours that we suggest if you like to learn more about the Cathedral.
The Highlights Tour - this one is perfect to learn about the history of the architecture and arts of the Cathedral. This one-hour tour is offered on Mondays, at 11 am and 2pm; Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am and 1 pm; and on Sunday at 1 pm. Ticket cost: $14 per person; $12 per student / senior citizen. It is not necessary to make advance reservations for this tour.

Vertical Tour - Available on Monday 10 am; Wednesday at 12 pm; Friday at 12 pm; and Saturday at 12pm and 2pm. You literally climb more than 40m (124ft), via spiral stairs, to the top of the largest cathedral in the world. The tour culminates on the rooftop with great views of Manhattan. Ticket Cost $20 per person, $18 for students / seniors. Space is limited and reservations are recommended. For reservations, visit the Church website or call the Cathedral at +1 (866) 811-4111. Check-in when you arrive by at the Visitor / Info Desk.


Always in the neighborhood, we recommend visiting Riverside Church located near Columbia University on Riverside Drive between 120th Street and 122nd Street. Riverside is actually a Baptist and Congregationalist church however it is well-known for its inclusivity approach based on Fosdick's (one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th century) original vision of an "interdenominational, interracial, and international" Church. To this point, the Church today has a congregation comprised of more than 40 different ethnic groups. It's also very socially active nationwide championing the fight for ending racial injustices and inequalities.

The original building designed by Henry C. Pelton and Allen & Collens in a classic Neo-Gothic style was opened in 1930. The Church is also well-known for the iconic 74-bell carillon near the top of the tower which was dedicated in memory of John Rockefeller Jr.'s mother.

The church is open to visitors 7 days a week from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except for major holidays.

If you decide to visit the Church make sure to also stroll in the near Riverside Park and stop to visit the famous Grant's Tomb -- The National Memorial dedicated to the 18th President of the United States. 

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Riverside Park - What to See in The Surroundings

  • The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument on 89th Street
  • Riverside Church on 121th Street
  • General Grant National Memorial on 122th Street

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