Archivist’s Angle: Life in the Old University Building
January 15, 2016
By Celeste Brewer (GSAS ’16)
NYU’s first permanent home, the University Building (located on the northeast corner of Washington Square between Waverly and Washington Places), was the first building constructed specifically for the University, and was designed in a Gothic Revival style inspired by medieval English collegiate buildings. The Building was dedicated in 1837 with great fanfare, and demolished in 1894 with much regret. What was it like to live, work, and study in the University Building? Perhaps no one knew better than the Building’s janitors J. R. Halliday and Henry Mathews.
The janitor managed the day-to-day operations that kept life in the University Building running smoothly. His work was much like that of modern building superintendents. He advertised vacancies, collected rent from tenants, and maintained order in the building. He also operated the University’s version of a school bell, banging on a gong with a mallet to signal the break between classes. His most important, and perhaps most overlooked, role was to manage the disparate groups who made up the University Building’s community.
The University Building community included students; professors; and local residents who turned unused rooms into artists’ studios, offices, and bachelors’ apartments. Notable residents include the inventor Samuel Colt, the artist Winslow Homer, and New York World editor-in-chief William Henry Hurlbert. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the University Building had developed a reputation as a place where those who were intellectually inclined could live and work as they pleased. Professors Samuel F. B. Morse and John W. Draper set up a daguerreotype studio on the roof. The New-York Historical Society rented rooms on the second floor. The basement was used for storage—and, according to a clipping from the 1836 New York Herald, a grog shop.
Though the University Building may have been beautiful, it seems it was not always a comfortable place to be, even by nineteenth century standards. Complaints about conditions there are a consistent theme in writings about the Building. Like the medieval buildings which inspired it, the University Building was cold and drafty, with dimly lit hallways and a perpetually leaky roof.
In April 1835, Morse sent a letter to the University Council complaining about the state of his rooms in the University Building. “Ever since I have rented these rooms the walls of all of them, including the room also occupied by me as a professor, have been more or less wet, which wetness has been renewed every time it has rained, and every time it has thawed with snow on the roof.” February was especially bad: “The four rooms were perfect shower baths.”
Twenty years later, janitor J. R. Halliday also mentioned the roof in his own breathless missive to the University Council. The roofs, he said, were “a source of continual annoyance and expenditure and will continue so as long as they remain in their present situation, as it is impossible to keep a tin roof tight so long as the snow has to be removed from them in the winter.”
Halliday’s successor, Henry Mathews, lived in the University Building with his family. He enjoyed making extemporaneous political speeches in favor of the Republican Party and protectionist economic policy, a trait which earned him the nickname the “the Irish Orator.” He may not have been invited to lecture in the Large Chapel, but he was a fixture of Greenwich Village political rallies, and was certainly not shy about sharing his views with NYU students. Though he might lecture students with Democratic political leanings, Mathews was very fond of the undergraduates. He hosted a reception each year for the graduating class, in which he gave speeches toasting the class’s achievements, and received gifts from the students in return.
Though unconventional, life in the University Building managed to accommodate both the exuberance of teenage undergraduates and the reserve of more reclusive artist residents. Perhaps the Building was simply in the right place at the right time—the historical period in which Greenwich Village bohemianism and Washington Square high society intersected. However, some credit should certainly go to the janitors, who held both the Building and its community together.