Leander visits Columbia, 1786

Columbia University is celebrating its 250th anniversary, in honor of which, here’s how the college looked to a visitor on Wednesday, 16 August 1786, when it was just thirty-two. (The visitor was a graduate of Nassau Hall, today known as Princeton, and the comparisons of Columbia to his alma mater are a little invidious.)

. . . Went to view the bathing-houses — like them exceedingly & propose to go in tomorrow if the day is suitable —— from thence took a direction for the college & after passing thro some stragling [sic] ill-built streets came to it — It stands on a very elevated situation & makes a good appearance — I wished to see the inside but having no acquaintance with any of the professors I was somewhat at a loss — at length concluded to enquire for Mr Schuyler (son to the General) upon the strength of my acquaintance with his brother John — The building has four doors & (I think) sixteen windows in width — I enter’d the first door which lead [sic] to one of the professor’s appartments [sic] & was directed to the second to enquire for Mr Scuyler’s [sic] room — I found the College was like many New York houses, more in appearance than reality — it was very ill-contrived & but one room & two studies deep — very narrow passages & shabby staircases — & upon the whole nothing to compare to Nassau Hall either in airiness or convenience — when I entered the second door some blowsy headed man who was very much like the picture of Peter the Wild Boy, an usher I supposed, came out into the entry — he pointed for me to go up stairs & dodged in again — I went up, & a desolate castle it appeared to be for I peep’d into the third story without seeing or hearing a creature — In the third story I rattled at a study door which was locked when a sudden voice bawl’d out “who’s there” — I answerd [sic] “a friend” & rattled again before it was opened, when a trio of blades were discovered who seemd [sic] to drop their ears all at once on seeing a sort of person whom they so little expected — They were however very civil chums & showed me into the next room for Mr Schuyler’s while one of them went down to call him — he was not to be found but his room-mate (I took him to be) appeared — an awkward gangling young man about twenty — I told him I wanted to see the college & had called on Mr Schuyler for that purpose — Whether it was thro’ indolence or confusion or that things really were as he described them I cannot tell, but he gave such a woeful account of things that my curiosity was quite satisfied — that their apparatus was broken, their library destroyed, that there were no good rooms, & in short that there was nothing in it worth a stranger’s notice — How different thought I is this from the emulation of Nassau, & gave him a hint of it which did not seem to touch his pride much, so after enquiring the number of students (of whom he said there were thirty) & a few more questions I left my compliments for Mr. S & bid him good morning — the chums at the door (of whom a party had gathered in the mean time) all making their obeisance to me as I passed —I returned by the Oswego market & made a bargain with a fruit woman for some temptingly fine large plums . . .

The description is from pages 97 to 99 of the first volume of the diary of Leander, a.k.a. John Fishbourne Mifflin, discussed in chapter 1 of my book, American Sympathy.