For the first decade of its existence, beginning in 1919, the New School for Social Research and Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874-1971), a co-founder and leader of the institution from 1922 through 1945, operated out of six renovated brownstones on West 23rd Street. Johnson and others had been on the faculty of Columbia University, but resigned in protest against a lack of academic freedom when Columbia, like many other colleges, banned anti-war demonstrations on the eve of World War I. These scholars set out to found advanced adult learning based on their own liberal principles, to foster “a desire to participate in the democratic social reconstruction of western society.” In 1933, President Alvin Johnson conceived of the “University in Exile,” to expand the school’s program and to provide employment for German scholars expelled by the Nazis; thus, more than 150 scholars were able to escape to America. Shortly after it opened in 1934, this part of the school became the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (eventually called The New School for Social Research), The New School’s first degree-granting unit.
Designated an interior landmark by LPC in 1997, the school building’s first floor includes the lobby, with dramatically curving shapes and hard shiny materials such as polished stone and bronze to complement the softer forms and materials of the auditorium—all completely in harmony with Johnson’s ideas for the school. Urban created a unique theatrical space in the rounded egg-shaped auditorium in shades of gray accented with red which are at once dramatic and intimate.