By the 1870s, City College’s original home, the Free Academy building at 23rd
Street and Lexington Avenue, was becoming overcrowded, outmoded and dilapidated. Although two adjacent annex buildings were erected, within a few years these facilities could no longer meet the College’s needs. At the same time, the center of Manhattan’s population was moving from south of the campus to the north.
After several years of lobbying by College officials and alumni, in 1895 the New York State legislature authorized acquiring land for a new campus. Over 40 sites were considered, with a tract between St. Nicholas Terrace and Convent Avenue, stretching from 138th Street to 140th Street, in Hamilton Heights near the village of Manhattanville, ultimately chosen.
Eight of the most prominent architects of the day were invited to submit plans for the new College building, among them George B. Post, who did something unorthodox. He requested and received permission to submit a second set of elevations, one in the classic revival/Beaux-Arts style and one in a Gothic design. The judges selected the latter and awarded Post the commission in 1898.
Initial plans called for a single building. However, in the years immediately following the selection of a site and architect, several changes in the College’s governance and curriculum occurred and had profound effects upon the planning process.
The College President, Gen. Alexander Webb, and Edwin M. Shepard, Class of 1869, chair of the newly created Board of Trustees’ Curriculum Committee, clashed for nearly a year over curriculum reform. By mid-1901, Shepard had prevailed and the College began moving toward a system based on a department structure with required and elective courses.
These changes resulted in a much more ambitious building program. The College acquired additional property on the west side of Convent Avenue. At Shepard’s urging, instead of a single building for all college activities, the plan now called for a group of buildings designed for specific activities.
In 1902, Post fulfilled Shepard’s vision with drawings depicting the layout of the new campus. The main building would still occupy the original site. Four others would be erected on the newly acquired land across the street. For the facades, Post chose schist, a dark stone native to upper Manhattan that could be excavated from the construction site and other projects in the vicinity. He would apply white, terra cotta trim to the windows, doors and other architectural features of the buildings.
The terra cotta details are one of the campus’ most distinctive features. They provide the buildings with an “enriched academic character that could be read with a humanistic, scholarly meaning.” There are over 600 grotesque figures, related to each building’s academic function to be found on the string course, cornices and moldings.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in March 1903, but the first construction contracts were not signed until almost the end of that year. In 1907, the last of the buildings were occupied and the Hamilton Heights campus was designated City College’s home.
Post’s design for the new campus was a triumph. He met the College’s needs and requirements without forcing those needs to conform to his design. His application of the latest theories yielded a nurturing environment that contributed to the education of those who used the buildings. By designing, as well, all the interior furniture and decorations, electrical fixtures, millwork, landscaping and entrance gates, he provided a complete environmental design that some have called a work of art.
 Adapted from “The City College of New York 150 Years of Academic Architecture” by Paul David Pearson.