March 12, 2001

Dragon Day Rivalry Neared

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No, this time the dragon won’t be fire-breathing. Nor will it be slayed by a mighty knight. It will, however, roll through campus on the feet of dozens of freshman architecture students to its fiery resting place on the arts quad.

Carrying on approximately one hundred years of the legend’s unveiling, architecture students will parade their medieval masterpiece this Thursday for Dragon Day.

Engineering students have yet to disclose the nature of their rival contraption that they will brandish outside Philips Hall on the ceremonial day.

One of Cornell’s hallowed traditions, the freshman students of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning spend weeks envisioning and constructing the dragon, which is transported from Rand Hall to the Engineering quad, and back to the arts quad through Ho plaza. During the ceremony, traffic on central campus is restricted.

The dragon then meets its fate in a bonfire on the Arts Quad. About 70 architecture students started building the dragon on Saturday. The end product will fuse several students’ ideas for the dragon.

“The students experiment with new ways of moving things — how the head moves, how the wings flap. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” explained Brian Beeners, advisor for the architecture students.

All students participate in some way in building the dragon.

“Different people are doing different things depending on what they are interested in. Upstairs people are painting the windows of the building. A lot of kids are raising money with t-shirts,” Maeve Curtin ’05 said. “It’s bound in tradition.”

“It’s great to design and build something and make it come alive,” Stephanie Horowitz ’05 said.

The engineering students have also been busy working on an enterprise of their own.

“We only work on weekends and we’re restricted on time,” said Michelle Engler ’03, president of the Phoenix Society. Still, Engler emphasized, “I feel that it’s pretty neat to be in charge and put it together.”

To pay for the necessary materials for each projects, students from both colleges designed and sold t-shirts.

Steeped in legend, the beginnings of Dragon Day stretch back to the ideas of Willard Straight 1901, an architecture student himself. He decided that the then-called College of Architecture, should have a day to celebrate its students. The occasion was dubbed “College of Architecture Day.”

Students made orange and green banners to hang from Lincoln Hall, then part of the architecture school. They adopted St. Patrick’s Day as the time for their celebration, and eventually added the legend of St. Patrick chasing the serpents from Ireland.

No one knows for sure the exact year that the celebration began. The general consensus is that it emerged sometime between 1897 and 1901. The concept of the dragon appeared in the 1930’s and it was then that the Dragon Day name was adopted.

Over the years, the theme of Dragon Day slowly developed into the celebration that Cornellians cherish today. Starting in the 1950’s, the students started to actually build dragons.

Dragon Day has been used as a day for political statements as well. To support the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, students constructed a paper-mache beer stein. In 1968, the dragon was painted black as a rebuke against the Vietnam War.

In past years, students have made creative innovations to their fabrications that fascinated many people. “One time back in 1990 the University didn’t want to support [Dragon Day] and the students did it anyway. They floated the dragon on Beebe Lake,” Beeners said.

In 1964 and 1976, the architecture students paraded the dragon through campus on cars.

In 1993, the students were at last permitted to use materials from the architecture college to make their dragons. Even before permission was granted, architecture students used the facilities and materials of the architecture college to complete its underground project, according to Beeners.

With some of the profits from the t-shirts they have been selling, a fund may be made to research the history of Dragon Day in greater depth. “A lot of this is legend. We want this to be a rich part of the history of the University,” Beeners said.

During the Dragon’s evolution, a rivalry developed between the architecture and engineering students. It became a battle over creativity. The engineers were simply upset that they were not acknowledged as being as imaginative as their peers in Rand Hall.

“The engineers started to destroy the dragon — they got mad since they said that [the engineers] were creative too,” Justin Melendez ’04 said.

The rivalry was at times intense and violent. The engineers were known to throw frozen fruit and soda bottles full of dry ice at the dragon.

“During the years [that the Phoenix Society] didn’t exist, the engineers hurled snowballs and insults,” said Prof. Timothy Healey, advisor of the Phoenix Society and chairman of theoretical and applied mechanics.

In the1980’s, the engineering students channeled their competitive spirits and formed the Phoenix Society. Its mission is to demonstrate support for the engineers on Dragon Day and showcase their own creative skills.

One year, the students decided to make a huge replica of the bird to show the diversity of their college. In 1987, they built a Viking ship. The society then dissipated for a few years.

But, like the legend of the Phoenix, the society rose again from its ashes. “They resurrected themselves last year and built the phoenix,” Healey said.

The Phoenix Society returns this year with a top secret project. The members have been working on the piece since mid-February.

The days leading up to the square-off include pranks and some episodes of vandalism, including leaving stamps of dragons and gears all over campus. Students trail toilet paper around the Arts and Architecture quads and water balloon fights are known to break out.

One year, the sculpture standing between Uris and Olin libraries was painted green. In 1966, students let a green-painted pig run loose in the Ivy Room. A large-scale food fight ensued, drawing concern from the Department of Public Safety.

The food fight was an example of one of the major sources of conflict between the participants of Dragon Day and the administration throughout the years.

There have been times, such as in1990, when the University did not want to support the day due to the possibility of violence.

“This is what we worry about on Dragon Day — fist fights. Last year was the start of a new era of cooperation and comradery since in past years it hasn’t been this way,” Healey said. “Staff and students have sat down to coordinate [Dragon Day] so that it will be a nice, safe day.”

Engler agrees with the new direction that Dragon Day is heading. “Last year was really funny. Everyone ended up hugging and talking after the water balloon fight,” she said, commenting on last year’s events.

Archived article by Kelly Samuels