the Ivy Doesn't Grow
R. Schreiber and
a recent Saturday night, a man stood in the dead center of Columbia
University's Morningside Heights campus, waiting to give a tour.
But this wasn't your average guided walk for prospective students.
It was 11 pm and the guide isn't even a student any more.
"My lips are starting to get numb," he said to one of
the members of his tour group who had arrived a few minutes late.
It was below 20 degrees that night and Benoit, as he likes to be
known, was only wearing a t-shirt and light leather jacket. The
group of four walked speedily towards one of the campus buildings.
Tour: Descending deep into Columbia's underground
has been giving tours of Columbia for five years, and those brave
enough to follow him are treated to sights of places few on campus
even know exist. Benoit knows the varied tunnel systems deep under
Columbia like the back of his hand. It's a knowledge he shares with
a small but active group of past and present students who venture
into the deep, and often dark and soggy, caverns.
first stop for the group is Pupin Hall, a physics building and Benoit's
favorite underground site on campus. Pupin was the site of early
phases of the Manhattan Project, an effort by the U.S. government
to build an atomic bomb before Germany. According to Benoit, there
is still equipment on the first floor of the building that dates
back to the 1920s.
cyclotron, located in room 127m was the first machine in history
to split the atom, in 1939," said Benoit. After it was decommissioned,
parts of it were shipped to the Smithsonian, while the core sits
smoldering away in Pupin."
from time to time takes items of interest he finds on his tours.
The first floor of Pupin, which has become a dumping ground for
old physics equipment, provides the most to choose from. He produces
a laminated photo ID he found on a recent visit. The I.D. once belonged
to Stanley Geschwind, who was part of the physics department in
1947. The ID has a photo of Geschwind, who went on to head a physics
department at AT&T Bell labs before dying in 1999.
for the group, the main entrance to Pupin was locked and Benoit's
Columbia access card doesn't work - he graduated in 2001.
next stop was Uris Hall, and this time, inexplicably, Benoit's card
works and the group gets in. After a couple of turns, Benoit leads
us down three flights of stairs and into what looks like a power
plant. Columbia provides power and heat to its entire Morningside
Heights campus. Inside this room, Benoit finds another set of stairs
leading into a dark and humid space with mud floors. Benoit is now
in his element. He points out old train tracks, used he said, to
transport coal back when the campus was coal powered.
tunnels under Columbia are covered with Benoit's tags
walls and pipes in this space, and most others that the tour group
would visit that night, are plastered with Benoit's tags, which
consist of his name and email address. He chose the name Benoit
in honor of his favorite wrestler, W.W.F. star Christ Benoit.
design," as he likes to call it, is routine on his trips under
Columbia, and he wants people to know that when it comes to campus
tunnels, he's an expert. He said he was surprised no one from the
press had contacted until now. He advertises and commemorates his
tunnel tours throughout the passageways and his dream, he says,
is to revisit the tunnels in 15 years, look at the walls and reminisce
of trips past.
space smells of must and Benoit leads us around a corner to an area
that has flooded. Mineral deposits and sludge have pooled in the
standing water, several inches deep, which he says gets much deeper
when it rains. Benoit turns on his flashlight and advises the rest
of the group to do the same and starts down a path walking along
bowing planks suspended above the water. A rusted boiler sits to
one side. He crawls into another room. Inside this small space Benoit
points to one side of the wall which has collapsed. Brown and white
mineral deposits cover the walls and ceiling as moisture drips from
pretty scary to think that this is what Uris Hall is resting on,"
said Benoit. He leapt over a pool of stagnant water and climbed
into an adjacent room, framed by rusting metal. This tunnel complex
which according to Benoit connects Shermerhorn, Mudd, Uris , Havemeyer
and Pupin halls, dates back as far as 1885. On the floor, Benoit
sees a Snapple bottle he left in the room two years earlier. Inside
the bottle he left a note which reads, "Someone is watching
to Jerimiah Stoldt, director of special programs in Columbia's facilities
management department, the tunnels were intended as a delivery system.
Columbia's power plant proves heat and energy to the various building
on its sprawling campus and the tunnels provide a delivery mechanism.
But they are also used by people - staff members and students have
said Stoldt, "there are some sections of the tunnels that are
open as a way of moving around campus."
sections include the tunnels that connect Kent, Hamilton and Philosophy
- all areas Benoit has explored, usually late at night..
for Chemists: The chemical composition of Tramadol, a drug
prescribed for pain relief.
a well lit hallway, the group passes a room which has been visited
by dozens of tunnel tourists. They have all tagged their names on
the wall. Some have left messages
to future tunnelers; someone has quoted long passages from J.R.R
Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Others, chemistry students
presumably, have drawn the atomic structure of certain mood-altering
chemical compounds. Taggers as far back as the early 1980s have
left their mark.
message, proclaims, "Space Cowboy is still here...'82."
knows of another Space Cowboy tag from 1978.
Space Cowboy attended Columbia between those two dates, Benoit notes,
"It would make the guy approximately 43 years old today. Pretty
reaching the next stop on the tour, one of the members of the group
decides to go home. The spaces were too small and she was beginning
to feel claustrophobic.
was dank, dark, flooded in some areas and it seemed a little dangerous,"
said Vanessa, who preferred not to use her last name. She lives
in Brooklyn and is the girlfriend of one of the Columbia students
on the tour. "It was like discovering a deserted city, but
not knowing why it was deserted. A little scary, but exciting."
group, sans Vanessa, proceeded to a smaller set of tunnels connecting
Hamilton, Kent, Buell, St. Paul's Chapel and Avery. These tunnels
for the most part contain equipment used to power the various buildings,
but Benoit has something more in mind. He guides the group towards
a ladder which leads to a small crawl space which opens up into
a humid and very narrow walkway.
pipes line the side of the three-foot wide, barrel-vaulted brick
passage. While the rest of the tunnels seemed to be about 50 or
60 degrees, this space is easily 90. One of the pipes seems to have
a leak and hot water collects and drips from the ceiling. The group
follows the passage for about 100 feet.
A dead squirrel in a tunnel somwhere below Buell Hall.
out for the dead squirrel," warns Benoit, stepping over the
the middle of the passage there is another ladder - this one is
missing about three rungs in the middle. The group makes its way
awkwardly up the ladder, into a set of rectangular passageways.
The Buell Hall crawlspace sits directly under the first floor of
Benoit points to the foundation rock on which Buell is built. The
rock, he says, dates back to a lunatic asylum which used to reside
on the site before Columbia located there. He believes that the
barrel-vaulted passage that led to the space may have been used
of the asylum.
was almost half past one when the group decided to call it a night.
Benoit led the tour out of the steam tunnel and back out into the
cold night air.
said that he leads tour infrequently these days, usually at the
beginning of a semester when new students have just arrived and
have discovered his tag during their own limited explorations. He's
mapped much of underground Columbia and mentions a few other tunnel
like the circular tunnels under Butler Library. There
are few places, he believes, that he hasn't been under his alma
the door is locked," he said. "I go through it."