A Window Into the Past: NYU in Retrospect
academics       Created by Evan J. Friss



The University of the City of New-York was founded on April 18, 1831 during a period of major commercial growth for the city. The founders of what would be renamed New York University in 1896 sought to create a modern institution that broke with religious, classical, and sectarian traditions. The founders, led by President Albert Gallatin, issued a manifesto, “Considerations Upon the Expediency and the Means of Establishing a University in the City of New-York,” which stressed the need for prac tical study to prepare citizens for participation in city life.

Chancellor James M. Mathews led the University through its formative years. Much smaller than it is today, the faculty included five professors and seven part-time instructors. Annual tuition was $80, while room and board were two dollars a week. Classes were held in rented rooms in Clinton Hall, a facility located near City Hall. By 1835, the University was able to build a home of its own in Washington Square—the neo-Gothic University Building. This structure became home to artists, writers, and inventors associated with the university. Here Samuel F.B. Morse constructed his telegraph and John W. Draper worked on his daguerreotypes.

The University continued to grow and thrive intermittently throughout the 19th and the 20th century. Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken (1891-1910) catapulted the University into the modern era, replacing the University Building with the more modern Main Building (1895) and fostering the expansion of the Schools of Law, Medicine, Engineering, and the new professional schools, such as the Graduate School of Arts and Science (1886). Most importantly, MacCracken rejuvenated the undergraduate division by establishing a new campus uptown on an estate in the Bronx.

Freed from the confines of the city, the University Heights campus contained lecture halls, laboratories, athletic fields, a gymnasium, and dormitories for undergraduate and engineering students. Stanford White, architect of the Washington Square Arch, designed much of the campus, including his masterpiece—Gould Library (named for railroad giant Jay Gould).

The opening of University Heights had a ripple effect over the whole school; NYU grew at a fast pace, opening several professional schools, including the School of Commerce (now the Leonard N. Stern School of Business) (1900), and an expanded School of Dentistry (1865/1925). Enrollment steadily increased, especially with the establishment of the four-year, coed Washington Square College in 1914. By the late 1940s, NYU enrolled more than 40,000 students and employed about 2,000 faculty.

This growth soon proved to be too much for NYU to sustain. Financial difficulties forced the University to sell the uptown campus in 1973. However, this sale, as well as the sale of the C.F. Mueller Company, a pasta company that NYU owned in a trust fund, allowed the University to refurbish and develop its Washington Square campus. The University constructed the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, named after the philanthropist and pharmaceutical executive. The library not only provided a central location for the campus but consolidated the Library collections which were scattered in 36 separate areas.

A Window Into the Past Home | NYU Archives Home