February 21, 2003     
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under columbia
nuclear basement


Under Columbia:
Where the Ivy Doesn't Grow

By Michael R. Schreiber and Gabriel Rodríguez-Nava

n 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.

 On Tour: Descending deep into  Columbia's  underground  tunnels.
 PHOTO:Gabriel Rodríguez-Nava  

Benoit 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.

The 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.

"The 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."

enoit 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.

Unfortunately for the group, the main entrance to Pupin was locked and Benoit's Columbia access card doesn't work - he graduated in 2001.

The 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.

The tunnels under Columbia are covered with Benoit's tags
PHOTO:Gabriel Rodríguez-Nava.

The 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.

"Graphic 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.

The 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 the ceiling.

"It's 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 you."

ccording 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 some access.

"Officially," said Stoldt, "there are some sections of the tunnels that are open as a way of moving around campus."

Those sections include the tunnels that connect Kent, Hamilton and Philosophy - all areas Benoit has explored, usually late at night..

Art for Chemists: The chemical composition of Tramadol, a drug prescribed for pain relief.
PHOTO:Gabriel Rodríguez-Nava 

Following 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.

One message, proclaims, "Space Cowboy is still here...'82."

Benoit knows of another Space Cowboy tag from 1978.

Assuming Space Cowboy attended Columbia between those two dates, Benoit notes, "It would make the guy approximately 43 years old today. Pretty cool."

Before 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.

"It 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."

he 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.

Steam 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.

R.I.P. A dead squirrel in a tunnel somwhere below Buell Hall.
PHOTO:Gabriel Rodríguez-Nava .

"Watch out for the dead squirrel," warns Benoit, stepping over the animal's carcass.

In 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 Buell.

Crouching, 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 as part
of the asylum.

It 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.

He 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 system… like the circular tunnels under Butler Library. There are few places, he believes, that he hasn't been under his alma mater.

"Unless the door is locked," he said. "I go through it."

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