March 27, 2006

Students Spice Up Dragon Day Every Year at Cornell

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A Cornell tradition more than one hundred years in the making, the event now known as Dragon Day originated in 1901 when a prankster by the name of Willard Straight 1901 instituted a College of Architecture Day to foster unity and pride within the college.

Nowadays, Dragon Day usually falls on the Thursday or Friday before the beginning of Spring Break in March. After first-year architecture students put the finishing touches on the dragon they have spent the last week building, they march the machee-monster down East Avenue, past the Engineering Quad, and onto the Arts Quad, where it meets its end in a controlled fire. However, the Dragon Day Cornell students in 2005 know and love might barely be recognized by Willard Straight and his peers of years past.

Dragon Day “started off and for a very long time was a purely student activity, much more on the order of a student prank,” recalled Prof. Arthur Ovaska ’73, assistant chair of the architecture department.

Since its inception, College of Architecture Day has always fallen around St. Patrick’s Day because St. Patrick is commonly thought of as the “patron-saint of architecture,” according to Ovaska.

Modern St. Patrick’s Day commemorates, among other things, the day St. Patrick rid Ireland of its snakes. In keeping with this legend, Cornell architects have for decades built a giant green dragon in mid-March and paraded it around campus, often scaring more than just snakes out of its path. For many years, College of Architecture Day provided a pretext for unruly students to paint Ezra Cornell’s Arts Quad statue – and other campus landmarks – the customary St. Patrick’s Day green.

Kent Hubbell ’67, who has experienced Dragon Day both as an architecture student and in his current post as dean of students, describes the day as “a rite of passage” for architecture students.

The modern version of Dragon Day emerged some time in the 1950s, when the giant dragon float planned and built by first year “archies” became a more central part of the Architecture Day celebration. As far back as 1952, the dragon tore through the campus, disturbing classes in Goldwin Smith Hall and causing commotion in the central campus libraries. The administration tried to curtail the rowdiness later in the 1950s, but if successful at all, its success was certainly short-lived.

In 1961, for instance, “the arts college reported that students were breaking windows in Goldwin Smith Hall, turning animals loose, and painting professors and students in classes,” The Sun reported that year. “At noon there was a fight on the Arts Quad when a student who was dressed for an interview was painted by a group of architects. In the afternoon, students attempted to paint an elderly man against his will.”

Five years later, the St. Patrick’s Day debauchery reached an extreme when architects released a squealing pig, painted green an hour earlier, into the Ivy Room in the Straight, starting a food fight. One student hit a police officer with a plate of mashed potatoes while others released the emergency brake on a police patrol car and sent it rolling down a campus hill.

The students gave the campus a much-needed respite from the Dragon Day shenanigans in 1968. In the preceding years, Dragon Day had doubled as a rally for activists expressing opinions on the Vietnam War. That year, however, architects displayed a “neutral commitment,” The Sun reported. Students toned down the unruliness and marched with an attitude “not anti-war or pro-war, just pro-involvement.”

In response to problems at Dragon Day ’89, the University decided to withdraw its support for the festivities in 1990. That year, however, first-year architects showed their resilience and built a dragon independent of any formal endorsement.

In the early morning, students assembled on the shore of Beebe Lake and waded in to cast off what is believed to be Cornell’s first aquatic dragon. Assembled of a wooden frame, nylon coverings and supported by 4 floats and 60 empty kegs, the amphibious beast glided triumphantly out of the lake, past the Engineering Quad and onto the Arts Quad where it went up in flames like every one of its predecessors.

The college renewed its formal support for the day in 1993, in an attempt to regulate Dragon Day chaos, but was unable to repress the long-established rivalry between first-year architecture and engineering students.

To compete with their more artfully-endowed peers, engineering students have adopted the custom of attempting to derail the dragon from its customary path to the Arts Quad. In 1998, for instance, engineers built a fortress on their quad to prevent the dragon from entering, and launched 700 water balloons at the unsuspecting architects. The Phoenix Society of the engineering school often tries to trump the architects by building its own creations, such as the giant black cobra it displayed in front of Phillips Hall in 2002. “It’s a matter of pride in engineering,” Bryan Armitage ’98 told The Sun that year. “The whole idea is to make the day a lot of fun on both sides while harassing each other a bit.”

By the time the ashes on the Arts Quad have cooled, freshmen architects have gained an invaluable experience on several levels. Beyond the fun and games, the students have learned a tremendous amount about working with a team of architects to design, plan, and build a structure.

“Building a dragon is a lot like making architecture,” Hubbell said. “I guess you could say it is emblematic of how architects work.”

Moreover, “the communal act of designing, making and producing something on a fairly large scale as an introductory experience,” Ovaska said, “is valuable in its own right.”

Whether valued for its practical nature, its ability to inspire enthusiasm on campus, or its tendency to foster incredible camaraderie, all agree that Dragon Day is one of Cornell’s most treasured customs. “We do worry about the health and safety of students,” said Hubbell. “But when you look at it as a rite of spring that’s more than a 100 years old, it’s a pretty amazing thing.”

Archived article by Josh Goldman
Sun Staff Writer