Alma Mater

  • Sculptor: Daniel Chester French. Pedestal: McKim, Mead and White
  • Dedicated: 1903
  • Medium and size: Bronze (8.5 feet), granite pedestal (approximately 5.5 feet at front)
  • Location: Columbia University, on the steps of the Low Memorial Library. Enter the campus on Broadway near 116th Street, walk half a block east, then look north.
  • Subway: 1 to 116th Street - Columbia University

Alma Mater 1000

Columbia’s Crown

Alma Mater's scepter and Columbia University's seal bear crowns because Columbia University was established in 1754 as King's College. Situated in lower Manhattan, it was a leading Anglican educational institution. Anglicans were associated with the English monarch, since Henry VIII had created the Church of England and named himself head of it some 200 years earlier. In the 1760s, students and faculty at King's College tended to be Tories.

King's College

Above: King's College, lower Manhattan, ca. 1770

Students at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), a Presbyterian institution, were often pro-American rebels. Alexander Hamilton meant to attend Princeton. He might not have been spurred to such eloquence on behalf of the American cause had he not instead attended King's College, where he honed his skills against  pro-British factions. A year after the British evacuated New York (see Washington at Union Square), King's College was renamed Columbia.

Alma mater base

Above: The back of Alma Mater's base bears a bas-relief of Columbia's seal. 

A Second American Revolution?

In a symposium printed in the Sunday New York Times on May 17, 1970, six intellectuals were asked, "Are we in the middle of a second American Revolution?" Most of them praised students for promoting, or at least bringing to public attention, a set of noble goals: peace, clean air, redistribution of wealth, justice and freedom for all. Several interviewees considered violence an acceptable means to achieve these ends, although others warned that such violence might produce a repressive counter-revolution. The odd woman out was Ayn Rand, who condemned the student rebellion as the "Anti-Industrial Revolution": "the revolt of the primordial brute - no, not against capitalism, but against capitalism's roots - against reason, progress, technology, achievement, reality." Rand's essays on the roots of the radical ideas and the violence of the 1960s (still relevant today) are available in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, ed. Peter Schwartz. 

 Daniel Chester French

French (1850-1931, b. Exeter, N.H.) was one of America's most notable sculptors. He studied with John Quincy Adams Ward and with Thomas Ball in Florence. Among his most notable works are the Minuteman, 1875 (Concord, Mass.); the Milmore Memorial, 1893 (copy at the Metropolitan Museum); the enormous Republic for the 1893 Columbian Exposition (smaller reproduction still standing on the south side of Chicago); the doors of the Boston Public Library, 1904; the Melvin Memorial (Mourning Victory, 1908; copy in the Metropolitan Museum) and the Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, 1922 (Washington).

Aside from works in the Metropolitan Museum, Manhattan has the Hunt MemorialAlma Mater, and Four Continents. Brooklyn has allegorical figures of Brooklynand Manhattan, ca. 1900 (in front of the Brooklyn Museum), and a lovely relief of Lafayette, 1917 (9th Street entrance to Prospect Park).

Cross References

Alma Mater's owl

Above: Tucked into the folds of Alma Mater's gown is an owl, the mascot of Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Bennett Owl

Above: The flashing green eyes in the video are a reference to the owls on the Bennett Memorial at Herald Square, whose eyes flash green at night.

  • Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan includes a quote from Francis Bacon on learning vs. wisdom, more on the symbolism of Alma Mater, and more details on events ca. 1968-1969 in the United States and New York.

Copyright (c) 2013 Dianne L. Durante