NU Declassified: A Brief History of The Rock

Anushuya Thapa, Reporter

Northwestern’s most iconic monument: The Rock. For decades, The Rock has been a pillar of student life but also controversy. How did a dilapidated fountain go from an object of pranks to a battleground for free speech on campus? Listen now to NU Declassified’s dive into The Rock’s history and its present.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Anushuya Thapa. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. Since the late 1930s, early 1940s, few things at Northwestern have been as iconic as painting The Rock. Today, we’re taking a close look at The Rock’s history: from how it arrived on campus, to how it became an icon of Northwestern student life, and the controversies of the University painting over student messages on The Rock.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: And as we round the corner and we would go under Weber Arch, we would then of course, pass Harris Hall on the right, and progress around into one of my favorite areas of campus which is, of course, The Rock courtyard, as it’s known.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: That was Tucker DeGregory, a School of Communication alumnus from the class of 2020. He was a Northwestern tour guide for three years. Here’s how Tucker used to tell the story of The Rock to prospective NU freshmen.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: So The Rock was actually given to the University by the class of 1902. And it was originally not a rock. It used to be a fountain. So the class of 1902 dedicated this gorgeous ornate fountain to the University and put it in the middle of this courtyard.

There are a lot of funny stories back from the early 1900s when this fountain existed about University of Chicago coming to dye the water in the fountain red during game day weekends during football weekends, and in turn, of course, Northwestern Wildcats would go to the UChicago campus and dye some of their fountains purple. So there was a lot of fun between the campuses with that.

But the fountain only lasted for a few years. Because not long after 1902, during winter, the story goes that Facilities Management forgot to turn off the water in the pipes. And the water froze in the winter months, of course in our crazy cold, cold winters. And when the pipes froze, the pipes burst and the fountain was rendered useless.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: According to University Archives, the broken fountain was painted for the first time in 1938. After Northwestern lost its homecoming football game to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, The Rock received a coat of red paint.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: All these years later in 1957, this group of freshmen thought it would be fun to make something of this dilapidated fountain. So they went out in the middle of the night, they got up from their dorm rooms, all cloaked. It was really cold. And the story is they painted something along the lines of “Freshmen rule, seniors drool” on the fountain. Now, of course, the seniors did not think that that was very funny. So they, the next night, drug those freshmen out from their dorm rooms and made them scrub the paint off using their toothbrushes.

Three years later, those freshmen are now seniors, and they decide to book in their time on campus by going back to the fountain and painting now, “Seniors rule, freshmen drool.” And so became this weird tradition of painting this broken fountain. And all these years later, the tradition, of course, still stands.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: The Archives say that painting The Rock only became a celebrated tradition of Northwestern’s campus life in the mid-60s. Since then, however, The Rock has received new coats of paint on the regular.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: There are over nine inches of paint coated on that fountain because so many people have gone and painted it. We had an art group come out and chisel into it to see how deep the paint went. And it’s over nine inches deep. So the fountain is actually embedded within the rock of paint. So there’s actually no rock sediment at all, it’s all just layer after layer of paint that has gone on it for all these decades since 1957. So, if you think about The Rock, right, it’s not super tall, it’s pretty short, the fountain was pretty small compared to what we might have expected. And The Rock has just formed from all those layers of paint combining over time.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Those layers and layers of paint — inches even — show how much people have painted it. In fact, the activity became so popular that it needed its own regulations.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: At one point, it was really unofficial, there was like a Google spreadsheet, a Google Doc of sorts that you could go into and just reserve for a certain day or slot. And prior to that, it was much more of a colloquial thing. It was decided upon in the community back before we had an official document to keep everything in line, but it’s now so popular that they had to keep it on track.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Now, many student groups on campus paint The Rock for various reasons, such as advertising an event or bonding.

JORDAN VAUGHN: So I was actually really sick the week before we painted The Rock last year, but I was really determined to do it, simply because it is one of Northwestern’s most famous traditions.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: That’s Jordan Vaughn, a Weinberg sophomore. Jordan painted The Rock during the Fall Quarter of her freshman year as a member of Rainbow Alliance, an undergraduate LGBTQ+ group at Northwestern.

JORDAN VAUGHN: I was like, I don’t know how many opportunities I’m going to get to paint The Rock. And I’m really glad that I did, seeing the situation that we’re in now, that I did get to experience it in person.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: But the tradition surrounding The Rock requires more than just painting it. I’ll let Tucker explain.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: The two rules that have come with painting The Rock very much so in the fashion of those students in 1957, are one, you must guard The Rock, either by yourself or on shifts alternating with other members of a student organization for 24 hours. And then once those 24 hours are up, you can paint whatever the heck you want on The Rock. But you must make the painting in the middle of the night in the cloak of darkness, just like the students in 1957.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Under a cloak of darkness and inside a tent — the perfect place to make college friendships. Jordan, who is now on the executive board of Rainbow Alliance, says the Northwestern ritual helped her connect to other students.

JORDAN VAUGHN: I know, for me, last year, being a first-year, there was kind of that period in the beginning of the year when you just wanted to make as many friends as possible, which was definitely one of the reasons that I went to it. Everyone’s a little lonely when they first go to college. And I still talk to a good number of people that I’ve met there. That’s how I met all the people who currently, I work with on the exec board with.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Over the years, painting The Rock became a part of the culture of many groups on campus. Jordan didn’t know when it became a tradition for Rainbow Alliance, but they currently do it annually.

JORDAN VAUGHN: We do it every year for Rainbow Week, which is pretty much just the week leading up to National Coming Out Day, so we do like an event every single day of the week, up until National Coming Out Day. And usually we paint The Rock as a group some time within that week. Obviously, we can’t do that in person this year, which is very sad, because it is a good bonding experience.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Painting The Rock and the areas around it, however, isn’t limited to being an avenue for advertisement or a place for bonding. It also became a site for vigils and a canvas for student activists.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: I’m really proud to see how The Rock has changed as far as what it’s meant to students, even in the time that I was at Northwestern and since then. While I was at Northwestern, it became a really big spot for memoriam and also for vigils. And that was either for students who had passed… There was a freshman, one of my classmates in 2016, unfortunately, who passed away due to a crew accident, and his name was preserved on the tree next to The Rock permanently. And so this courtyard became a spot that students could go to throughout their four years to really think about him and pay honor to him over time, so that was really cool.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Student activists also use The Rock to advocate for current social issues. Kandace Mack is a School of Comm junior who was involved in recently repainting The Rock with the word “Enough.” Other messages on The Rock included “Land Back,” “BLM” and “End Imperialism.”

KANDACE MACK: So the very first time I painted The Rock, I didn’t follow the typical tradition of like staying overnight or anything because over the summer, The Rock had been painted with “White Silence Kills.” It had “Abolish the police,” and Breonna Taylor’s name, George Floyd’s name.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: On Sept. 5, those messages on The Rock were painted over with a plain white coat and purple letters spelling “NU.”

KANDANCE MACK: I thought that that was offensive. It felt like erasure, it felt like silencing. It felt like they had presented this piece of architecture as the students’. And suddenly, it was no longer ours. And our voices were no longer valid. And it also, it was painted right before the school year started. So it felt like they believed that the things that we cared about, such as abolishing the police and the protests that came up surrounding George Floyd’s murder, it felt like they thought that that was over.

And that I think was the hardest part for me was that as a Black woman that that is never over for me, that’s something that’s never going to go away. And so to paint over it, it feels like painting over trauma. And that’s one piece that I wrote on The Rock was like, “You can’t paint over trauma.” Because that’s silencing and I won’t stand for that.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Squeezing an ‘o’ in between ‘n’ and ‘u,’ Kandace and a group of students wrote over the previous coat of paint to spell “Enough.” She said they invited it to be like an open art piece for students’ thoughts.

KANDACE MACK: It was broad daylight. I had planned for it to be at night, but it rained. So we went in the morning, in the daytime. And it was kind of cold. We were wearing our jackets, and we were all painting. People came and left. And I left some paint by The Rock after I left, too, so that people could continue writing on it. We had people of all years show up. First-years, second-years, third-years, fourth-years. It was really, really awesome. Running around The Rock and talking about what needs to be on The Rock was important too. Because everyone was like, “Okay, what else are we thinking about right now? And what else can we tell Northwestern to recognize and stop erasing?”

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Within the past few years, Northwestern has painted over student messages on The Rock multiple times, causing controversy. A sexual assault survivor’s story was painted on The Rock and surrounding ground. A few days later, the 24-hour Rock Cam showed Northwestern Facilities power washing the messages away. The University said it was because the content may be triggering for some students. And this is not new. Last year, students painted “F–k John Evans” and “THIS LAND IS COLONIZED” on and all around The Rock. The University later covered that up as well, saying it was because the message contained the F-word. But as student activists have used The Rock as an avenue for their messages, questions regarding censorship on campus have come to light.

TUCKER DEGREGORY: I know there was some controversy between administration and students as far as what exactly could be said on The Rock because there was some profanity painted. And of course, that is acceptable as far as freedom of speech but the University said that it crossed lines because it was still on University property. So I’m really curious to see how those things are decided in the next few years. Because it is exciting to me as a student to see students voicing their opinions openly on The Rock.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Anushuya Thapa. That’s all for this episode of NU Declassified. Thanks for listening. This episode was reported and produced by me, Anushuya Thapa. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Alex Chun, the digital managing editors are Jacob Ohara and Molly Lubbers, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AnushuyaThapa

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