Alma Mater Statue at Columbia University
The Alma Mater statue at Columbia University in Manhattan, New York has been a symbol of the university ever since its erection in 1903. Harriette W. Goelet commissioned Daniel Chester French to build the statue in honor of her husband, Robert Goelet, who graduated from the University with the class of 1860. The statue is made of bronze and sits on a marble and granite base in front of Columbia University’s Low Library.
Backstory and Context
The Alma Mater Statute was commissioned in honor of Goelet, a member of the class of 1860. Goelet had no special affiliations with the school beyond graduating from it, but he had enough money to pay for the statue. Although the name Goelet is not widely known across campus, the back of the statue’s base will forever be engraved with the phrase, “In Memory of Robert Goelet, Class of 1860.”
Although the statue is unique to Columbia University, the term “Alma Mater” is not. The term, meaning “nourishing mother” in Latin, originally comes from the motto of the University of Bologna, “Alma Mater Studiorum.” This translates to “nourishing mother of studies.” This motto is the first known connection of the term “Alma Mater” to the university from which one graduated.
The statue encompasses the image of the Alma Mater with the torches on the arms of the chair symbolizing learning and wisdom, the laurel wreath upon the head symbolizing fame or victory, a scepter topped with a crown, and an owl, a symbol of wisdom, hidden in the folds of the statue’s robes. Many people became enthralled with the hidden owl soon after the statue’s unveiling, and rumors were spread that anyone who found the owl would marry a woman from Barnard, a sister women’s college, or that the first freshman to find the owl would graduate as valedictorian of his class.
This was not the only joke about the statue that spread throughout the student body. In 1928, the crown that tops the scepter was stolen and later returned after the university offered a reward. Some other pranks involving the statue even spread to other schools. In 1984, the statue’s entire scepter was stolen by visiting students from Cornell University, and it was returned covered in Cornell pennants after two months of absence.
The statue became a target for more violent acts. Many people viewed the statue as a symbol of the university’s administration, which heightened some attacks against it. In 1970, in the midst of civil rights and Vietnam War protests on campus, a bomb was planted on the statue. When the bomb exploded, a portion of the statue’s throne was destroyed. Eight years later, the statue was removed for renovation, moving from its place for the first time since its unveiling. The statue was renovated within the year. The Alma Mater statue still stands tall today and remains a prevalent symbol of Columbia University, sparking pride and fond memories for old and new students alike.
Julie Golia, “Alma Mater: Early History,” Columbia University Archives, 2010, https://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/resources/almaearly.html.
 Dianne Durante, “Alma Mater,” Forgotten Delights, 2014, https://www.forgottendelights.com/almamater_2.html.
 Julie Golia, “Alma Mater: Lore and Pranks,” Columbia University Libraries, 2010, https://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/resources/almaearly/almalore.html.
 Julie Golia, “Alma Mater: In the 20th Century,” Columbia University Libraries, 2010, https://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/resources/almaearly/alma20cent.html.
Durante, Dianne. “Alma Mater.” Forgotten Delights. 2014. https://www.forgottendelights.com/almamater_2.html.
Golia, Julie “Alma Mater: Early History,” Columbia University Archives, 2010, https://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/resources/almaearly.html.
Golia, Julie. “Alma Mater: In the 20th Century.” Columbia University Libraries. 2010. https://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/resources/almaearly/alma20cent.html.
Golia, Julie. “Alma Mater: Lore and Pranks.” Columbia University Libraries. 2010. https://library.columbia.edu/locations/cuarchives/resources/almaearly/almalore.html.
Yeo, Douglas. “Daniel Chester French ‘Alma Mater.’” Yeo Doug. 2003. http://www.yeodoug.com/resources/dc_french/alma_mater/dcfrench_alma_mater.html.
Golia, Julie. “Alma Mater: Erecting the Statue.” Columbia University Libraries. 2010.
Golia, Julie. “Alma Mater: In the 21st Century.” Columbia University Libraries. 2010.