Columbia College As It Was
( Originally Published 1893 )
COLUMBIA COLLEGE AS IT WAS -- A COMMENCEMENT FORTY YEARS AGO-RIOTS THAT COST LIFE-LANDMARKS OF CHELSEA-AN ECCLESIASTICAL ROMANCE
PAUSING for a moment under the trees of the old Theological Seminary, in ancient Chelsea village, and marking the march of improvement in the construction of the great "quad," with its noble Chapel of the Good Shepherd, I am re-minded that there is one green spot back in my path to which I have not yet paid my respects. From the door of the old Cushman homestead, opposite the east end of the Seminary grounds, comes one of my old school-mates of that name. A freak of memory recalls him instantaneously in silken gown, in the old chapel of Columbia College. He was slender then and rosy ; now he is more or less gray and robust. His student gown would be a miserable misfit to-day.
In the old programmes of public processions the Faculty and students of Columbia College were always awarded a place of honor. Omnibuses were as-signed for their conveyance, and they were expected to embark in these vehicles in their silken robes. As a very small boy, I used to stand on the sidewalk and look upon these superior beings with envy, wondering if I ever should arrive at the dignity of being exalted to an official omnibus. At this distance of time I have a stray suspicion that the students who rode in the processions were chiefly Freshmen. Later, it was my delight to attend the commencements and semi-annuals, and the speakers had always a deeply interested audience of one at least.
Columbia College occupied an unbroken block between Barclay and Murray streets and Church Street and College Place. Park Place went only to Church Street, and the street from College Place to the river was called Robinson Street. The buildings were not imposing, but there was a scholastic air about the quadrangle which did not fail to inspire awe. Two Revolutionary cannon partly sunk in the ground guarded the gate-way ; there was a legend to the effect that they had been captured from the British by Alexander Hamilton, once a student of the college-King's College, as it was in his day. It had been my ambition to be graduated at this institution, but fate sent me to an Eastern college. However, I kept up my acquaintance with " the boys," and visited them on all possible occasions. Here it was that my first silk hat met an untimely fate. I had just purchased it, and with its added dignity entered the side gate impressively, when a well-directed kick from the stout boot of stout Cutler C. McAllister sent a foot-ball high in air and it came down with a crash directly upon my new tile. A second visit to the hatter was imperative, and I tried to smile, but I never admired the game of foot-ball afterwards.
In those days President King was the academical head of Columbia, but Professor Anthon, " Old Bull " Anthon, as the students irreverently designated him, was a bigger man than all the rest of the Faculty combined. It used to be said of him that he ate a boy for breakfast every morning, so severe was his discipline in the grammar-school over which he also pre-sided. In the college class-room his powers of sarcasm made him the terror of the careless or lazy student. His assistant, Mr. Drisler, had then won no special laurels. Venerable Professor McVickar was a favorite with everybody, a gentle, kindly man, whose erudition was proverbial, and of whose kindliness the students were prone to take advantage, even though it were with pangs of penitence. As a boy I had met him often, and been drawn towards him, but the other members of the Faculty inspired me with unspeakable awe.
I remember attending a commencement of Columbia College that was held in the Episcopal Church of the Crucifixion on Eighth Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. It was soon after the Mexican War had closed that I attended the commencement at this church, and General Scott, tall and soldierly, was a conspicuous figure on the platform. One of the speakers, a son of Dr, Schroeder, rector of the church, turned and addressed the general, who bowed in a dignified manner to the plaudits of the audience. But the speaker who most challenged my admiration that day was " Billy" Armitage, whose popularity with his classmates seemed to be unbounded. He was subsequently Bishop of Wisconsin, and died in 1873, before he had reached the prime of life.
The men of that epoch were my seniors. A few years only intervened between us, but they made a great gulf in those days. Later I knew all the boys. Among these were John H. Anthon, afterwards the eloquent leader of the Apollo Hall Democracy," Jack" Byron, Cutler C. McAllister, Dr. Thurston, Samuel F. Barger, the railway financier, Col. H. S. Olcott, Gen. Stewart L. Woodford, since Lieutenant-governor and Congressman ; Bob Chisholm, afterwards a Confederate officer ; a delegation from the neighborhood of St. John's Park, consisting of the Smedbergs, Hamiltons, Lydigs, Hyslops, and Drakes ; George C. Pennell, who lived in Chambers Street, and was popularly reputed to have weighed two hundred pounds when he was born (he had a voice to match, and when he spoke his great piece " Sampson he almost literally brought down the house): a lot of quiet students who afterwards became parsons, J. S. B. Hodges, Brewer, Dickinson, etc. Why lengthen out the roster? There is another set of college buildings now, with new brands of professors, and a thousand catalogued students. We, who remember old Columbia College in the days when a literary atmosphere still lingered about Park Place, and a stray milliner employed a half-dozen pretty apprentices in her fashionable establishment on that thoroughfare, are gray-headed and have nearly finished our story. Morituri vos salutamus!
The University of New York still keeps its location on Washington Square. Its walls recall one of the early riots of the city, caused by an uprising of working-men against the use of stone cut by State Prison convicts in the construction of the building. The military were called out, but there was no bloodshed. In my undergraduate days there was a feeling of jealousy between the University and the Columbia College boys (I believe they all spoke of themselves as men," by the way); and as the superiority of age was on the side of old Columbia, the college took airs upon itself accordingly. Theodore Frelinghuysen was Chancellor of the University then, if I remember, and his name, viewed socially and politically, was a tower of strength. I never pass the University building of late years but I associate it with the "Cecil Dreeme " of Theodore Winthrop (poor fellow, the promise of his brilliant young life was dashed to pieces in the fight at Big Bethel), which has invested the structure with a fascinating interest.
Remembrance of the working-men's riot at the University induces me to step aside and visit the scene of the Astor Place riot. That was tragedy in dead earnest. A school-boy at the time, I remember the excitement that pervaded all classes as to the relative claims of Forrest and Macready. As a full-blooded American, I naturally stood up for home talent, and helped make life unpleasant for a youthful Londoner in my class at school. The sensation made by the bloodshed in Astor Place was like the opening of war at our doors. With a school-boy's curiosity, I was at the scene early the next morning, and sought out with eager interest some little dingy spots of red that were pointed out to sight-seers, and the places on the north-ern wall of the big house at the corner of Lafayette Place which had been chipped out by the bullets of the soldiery. It was not thought safe for my sisters to go to Mme. Okill's school at the corner of Clinton Place and Mercer Street that day, and I had the glory of having visited the seat of war all to myself. The riot left one unanswered conundrum : Who gave the order to fire? No one desired to claim the honor of issuing the command, and the officers of the militia finally settled down to the conviction that the bruised and battered soldiery began the fire themselves. The locality was then a fashionable centre ; the slums invaded it, and left their mark upon it in blood.
But to return to Chelsea. London Terrace was a charming place of residence forty years ago, and still retains much of its old-time beauty. A few years later the solid men of the lower wards on the west side began building in the upper section of Chelsea, between Eighth and Ninth avenues and Twenty-seventh and Thirtieth streets, and this locality to this day retains an air of eminent respectability, and its ample rear gardens are a ceaseless source of comfort to the residents. West of this settlement the city is still unattractive. It was a wild place when I was a boy, and the maintenance of the old Hudson River Rail-road depot there still retards public and private improvements. But the river front is picturesque, and across the stream rise the heights of Hoboken, crowned by the Passionist monastery and church. The heights as they were, where nature left them covered with forest trees, were still prettier, but one can be grateful that man cannot mar the landscape utterly.
Two landmarks of old Chelsea remain unchanged. At the corner of Twenty-eighth Street and Ninth Avenue stands the old Church of the Holy Apostles-that is, it is old comparatively, though the painters have attired it in a new dress of red with brown trimmings. A generation ago the Rev. Dr. R. S. Howland was the rector, and the late Dr. George J. Geer was his assistant. They were excellent men, both of them, and Dr. Geer was always good company. One of my uncles was a vestryman of the church, and he told me the story of its foundation. A young man, son of a great ship-builder, determined to study for the ministry of the Episcopal Church, though his father was not of that faith.' The son persisted, and the father made his will; cutting off the disobedient son with the proverbial shilling. Ordained and in the ministry, but cut off from the wealth he should have inherited, the son kept on his way unmoved-but not unwatched by the father. Touched by his consistent conduct, the father made a new will, leaving to the once disinherited boy his entire possessions. Then the old man died. The son divided the property equally among the heirs, and out of his own share built the Church of the Holy Apostles as a thank-offering. A good lesson for a church-spire to teach.
Dr. Geer was always jolly, and dearly loved a good joke. The last time I saw him he told me how one day, some years before, as his sexton helped him to put on his surplice, he noticed that the man had on a most doleful countenance, and he asked him what was the matter. " Oh, Mr. Geer,' said the sexton, " I wish we might have some Gospel preaching here. This morning the Methodist preacher at the Chelsea Church is going to improve the flood, and to-night he will improve the hanging. Can't you do it, too ?" There had been an execution at the Tombs and a notable rise in the Hudson that week-hence the outburst of ecstasy.
The sturdy gray granite tower of old St. Peter's Church also shows no mark of the flight of years. On the contrary, I observe as I pass it with a tourist's eye that it has set itself off with certain modern furbelows in the shape of turreted wooden porticos at the door-ways, as pardonable a vanity as the fresh violet rib-bons with which my grandmother was wont to deco-rate her best Sunday cap. It doesn't signify, Felix," she would say, "but I do like to see old folks spruce themselves up, and somehow I always want to look my best, even to my grandson."
There is a pathetic strain of association with the old church, which goes back to a day when a young student of divinity made more noise in the American ecclesiastical world than the whole bench of bishops. It was at the time when Puseyism, so called, was on everybody's tongue, and old-fashioned high and dry churchmen considered it a mortal sin for an officiating clergyman to " turn his back upon the congregation." On the day when Arthur Carey was to be ordained to the ministry, Drs. Smith and Anthon, rectors of St. Peter's and St. Mark's churches, respectively, stood up to object to proceeding with the service. Thence arose the wildest kind of an ecclesiastical circus. It was the beginning of a bitter persecution of the late Bishop Onderdonk, who ordained Mr. Carey, and for a while it divided clergy and people into warring factions, and made the diocesan conventions in old St. John's Chapel a species of theological bear-garden. Poor Carey! He had a short, sad life. . few months afterwards he died at sea, and when a kindly Presbyterian clergyman, who was somewhat suspicious of all ritualists, and knew of Mr. Carey only through the religious press, stood at his bedside and asked him if he placed all his reliance on his Saviour in that hour, the dying youth turned a reproachful look upon him and replied, "Of course I do." The clergyman said afterwards that he had never witnessed a more peaceful and edifying death, and bore high testimony to Arthur Carey's faith. It was the echo of this terrific ecclesiastical storm, with its wild warrings of good men and its undercurrent of pathos, that seemed to sweep around the turrets of old St. Peter's as I passed by.
Not far from the church, and occupying the entire block between Twenty-second and Twenty-third streets and Eighth and Ninth avenues, stood, a generation ago, the picturesque home of Clement C. Moore. It had been the country-seat of his father, the second Bishop of New York, and the grading of the streets had left the entire block elevated twelve or fifteen feet above the sidewalk. The cosiest of suburban homes, it was hidden by great oaks and elms, and outsiders had only glimpses of the loveliness of its surroundings. Here lived the kindliest of scholars, the most learned of college professors, the most assiduous of bookworms, a writer whose published works were held in highest reverence by the learned men of his day. But he is known to posterity by none of these sound claims to reputation. A little rhyme, dashed off under this roof, when the trees were bare of leaves and the rob-ins had departed, and written solely for the pleasure of his grandchildren, has made the name of Clement C. Moore a household word wherever the English tongue is spoken. Here he wrote the nursery rhyme that all childhood has since learned: "'Twas the Night Before Christmas;" and by this unsuspected little pathway he mounted up to fame.
It is a pity that green fields and bright gardens have to give place to bricks and mortar and bluestone pavements ; and old Chelsea, in its prime, was a very ham-let of roses and romance. But, after all, as my grand-mother would say, " It doesn't signify."