Columbia University in Morningside Heights was founded as King’s College in 1754 by King George II of England. Its first graduating class had only eight people who attended class in a small schoolhouse adjoining to Trinity Church. The fifth-oldest university in America and the oldest in New York, Columbia educated some of the soon-to-be United States’ most seminal revolutionary minds including Alexander Hamilton.
It is the largest single collection of designs by McKim, Mead, and White, who modeled the buildings in a Roman classical style. Columbia is worth a visit for anyone interested in classical architecture, but there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Sure, you could sit on Low Steps and people-watch, but if you’re an Untapped Cities reader you most likely are interested in some more unique adventures. Countless secret haunts and stories line the labyrinthine campus, which stretches far underground through tunnels and high up to the tops of buildings. Read on to discover 10 off-the-beaten-path things to do (some easier than others) at one of the world’s most famous and controversial institutions.
1. Relive the Invention of Nuclear Power at Pupin Laboratories
Much of the research for the Manhattan Project—which developed the nuclear bombs that would later fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II—was conducted at Columbia University. A significant amount occurred in the basement laboratories of Pupin Hall, which was home to the Nevis cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator known as an “atom smasher” that could channel atoms through a vacuum at a speed of up to 25,000 miles per second. This machine eventually helped a team of scientists replicate German discovery of nuclear fission, and aided the United States in developing nuclear bombs.
Not much of the experiment is visible to the cautious explorer, but anyone can pay a visit to the plaque on Pupin’s foyer, which declares the hall a National Historic Landmark and a place of “exceptional historical value.” Notably, the plaque does not mention nuclear fission or any of the experiments that occurred inside. Still, the hall is worth a visit, if only to contemplate the tremendous significance of the experiments that occurred just below the surface.