The stories behind the stories: Penn’s urban legends

Don’t walk over the compass at Locust Walk and 37th Street or you’ll flunk midterms. The high-rises that make up Hamilton Village were actually constructed as temporary structures. The design for Irvine Auditorium was a losing entry in an architectural competition.

Like any university steeped in tradition, Penn’s got urban legends aplenty. While some urban legends are overblown and obviously exaggerated, it can be said that some of them begin with an element of truth. It’s true, famous cartoonist Charles Addams FA’34, Hon’80 did attend Penn. Whether he used College Hall as the model for the Addams Family home was something he never answered directly.

According to Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center, successful urban legends—ones that persist over time—are those that have a reason to be repeated between generations. “The legends about Irvine Auditorium and the Frank Furness-designed Fisher Fine Arts Library will continue as long as those buildings stand, but the legend about Charles Addams and his cartoons in The New Yorker … will die out as the name Charles Addams gradually loses its base of common knowledge.”

Here are a sampling of those that persist.

Irvine as a student’s revenge

Though Irvine Auditorium today is renowned for breathtaking interior paintings, ornate Gothic architecture inspired by the French cathedral Mont Saint Michel, and terrific acoustics, Penn’s performance hall is still the subject of a famous urban legend. As outlined by George E. Thomas Gr’75, lecturer in historical preservation and urban studies, and David P. Brownlee, professor and chairman of the Department of the History of Art, in their history of Penn, “Building America’s First University,” Irvine was rumored to be the design of a failed architecture student. This student supposedly modeled the design on Mont Saint Michel while at Penn, but the design was rejected by the architecture department and the student flunked. This student—or his father, in some versions of the legend—vowed revenge and returned to the school with a large amount of money in hand and an offer to build a performance center. The University was thrilled at the offer until the student demanded they build his failed vision—Irvine.

The legend is still passed around campus even though the firm of renowned Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer designed and opened the building in 1928. Extensive renovations were completed in 2000 to correct the poor acoustics that had long plagued the structure.

Hamilton Village: NASA wind tunnel or temporary structure?

Both, according to legend. Thomas and Brownlee write that students started the rumor that the three undergraduate high-rise buildings that form part of Hamilton Village were actually temporary structures and never meant to be permanent. “It’s not true,” said Sue Smith, who thwarts this rumor on every Kite and Key campus tour. “It never was true.” And the rumor that the blustery area in Hamilton Village was actually put to use in the 1960s as a wind tunnel? Also untrue, of course. Thomas and Brownlee write that some bright undergrad decided that this area was designed not only as housing, but as a NASA test site for space vehicles. Was Penn part of some secret project? Hardly. It seems more like an example of Cold War conspiracy-theory imaginations running wild with creative stories about distinct campus buildings.

Bad-luck compass?

The granite compass embedded in Locust Walk at 37th Street has been the subject of one of Penn’s most recent and popular urban legends, origin unknown: the unlucky who walk over the compass will fail midterm exams. Robert Lundgren LAr’82, Penn’s landscape architect, designed the compass and since 1984 has watched it grow as a campus landmark and meeting place. But it wasn’t until last spring when a colleague told him about the legend she had heard from a student. “It was a surprise to me,” said Lundgren with a laugh. “It is kind of funny. It’s nice that they attached something personal to that.”