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The Milbank Hall complex at Barnard College consists of three interconnected buildings--Milbank Hall, Brinckerhoff Hall, and Fiske Hall--now collectively known as Milbank Hall. The complex is significant in the history of women's education in the United States. Founded in 1888 as an independent institution with its own trustees and fundraising, Barnard College was the first institution of higher education for women in New York City, and, although it was a separate institution, Barnard students received a Columbia College degree. Classes were inaugurated in October 1889 in a rented rowhouse close to Columbia's Midtown campus, but when Columbia announced in 1891 that it would be moving to 116th Street on Morningside Heights, Barnard's trustees were forced to look for a new site as well. In 1895, the college purchased the small block bounded by West 119th and West 120th Streets, Broadway, and Claremont Avenue, just west of Columbia's campus. Gifts had been received to build two new buildings, including one gift from Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heir to the Borden's Milk fortune, who insisted that she choose the architect. Anderson hired Charles Rich.
The Milbank Hall complex is New York City's first group of buildings specifically erected for the education of women and, initially, served all of the needs of the college: classrooms, laboratories, library, administrative offices, and dormitory. The complex is also significant as a fine work of architecture. Designed by Rich in a manner that echoed the design of classroom buildings at nearby Columbia College, Rich envisioned a unified complex with three interconnected, four-story structures. On a significantly reduced scale, Rich's plan echoes that of Columbia, with a series of buildings set around a large south-facing court. In addition, Rich adapted the design and materials chosen by Charles McKim for the Columbia classroom buildings. Thus, Barnard's buildings combine the same Italian Renaissance massing and detailing with Colonial-inspired features used by Columbia. The buildings are faced with the same dark red Harvard brick chosen by McKim and are trimmed with similar white masonry--all limestone at Columbia, but in a cost-saving move, limestone and white, glazed terra cotta at Barnard. The building had several impressive interior spaces; extant features include impressive cast-iron stairways, a Tiffany stained- and leaded-glass window, and a spectacular Tiffany-designed glass fireplace mantel. The two original buildings--Milbank and Brinckerhoff--were completed in time for Barnard to begin classes, along with Columbia, on Morningside Heights in October 1897. Fiske Hall was completed a year later, completing the initial Barnard campus.
Of all Barnard's historic buildings, Milbank is the most in need of preservation. Milbank is the most richly ornamented of Barnard's historic buildings and as a result clearly shows the effects of accumulated dirt and weather damage blackening its brick, stone, and terra cotta. Much of the building's terra cotta is cracked, as is some of the limestone. Some of the Spanish tiles on the roof of its courtyard loggia are broken, and replacement tiles do not match. White metal mechanical vents and housings stick up over the roof edges. Milbank shows the effects of maintenance procedures that are not well adapted to its materials. Some bronze doors, for example, have been stripped to bright metal, destroying their intended finish. The tile roof of Milbank's portico has been poorly repaired so that it still leaks in numerous places. Terra cotta has been cleaned by inappropriate methods and sometimes poorly repaired, and windows have been replaced with varying materials. Milbank's richly ornamented southern entry court needs work on its tile, its terra cotta, and its stone. The court also shows the effect in its windows of the dropped soffits required for air conditioning. These soffits replace with blank metal panels what were, in some instances, leaded-glass transoms. These metal panels change the proportions of the windows, making it clear that they are now essentially false indicators of the interior space, particularly when the lighting inside shows how far the ceiling inside has been lowered.
The interiors of Milbank Hall also need to be considered in a Preservation Master Plan. Originally this complex housed the entire College, with classrooms, laboratories, administrative offices, library, and dormitory rooms. As the College grew and other buildings took over some of these functions, these facilities were altered; with these changing uses came major interior renovations and a loss of much of the original fabric. The major extant historic features are the magnificent cast-iron entry columns and three cast-iron stairways with marble and slate treads and richly-detailed classical ornamentation. These features have been painted over many times and have lost much of their distinctive character. Layers of paint have obliterated detail and all original finishes have disappeared. The most significant room in Milbank Hall was the Ella Weed Library on the second floor designed by Tiffany Studios. This tiny library grew into a large facility in Lehman Hall, and the room became a heavily used meeting area. A spectacular Tiffany-glass mantelpiece remains, but it stands in an otherwise uninteresting space in desperate need of restoration and redesign.