July 19, 2009

Enter the Dragon: Architects Unleash a Beast

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The century-old tradition of celebrating Cornell’s Department of Architecture continues every year with the parade and incineration of a dragon that first-year architects spend hours constructing. Sometime during his four years on campus, Willard Straight 1901 organized the first “College of Architecture Day” in a successful attempt to build class unity among architects. For reasons unknown to Cornell historians, Straight chose to hold his celebration on St. Patrick’s Day. Today, Dragon Day continues to fall on or near the holiday of shamrocks, leprechauns and Guinness.
To mark the first Architecture Day, Willard Straight and his pals adorned Lincoln Hall (Rand Hall did not yet exist) with shamrocks, green banners and other St. Patrick’s Day décor. By 1920, the architects had become more ambitious and incorporated a parade into their celebration. That same year, according to the alumni website, Willard Straight’s widow received a letter saying “a 12-foot St. Patrick was painted and hung on the side of the building with a great 20-foot-long serpent chasing after him. In the afternoon, these were taken down, and carried in solemn procession around the campus.”
Though some version of Dragon Day has taken place most years since Straight started the tradition, a few years have passed without celebrating the residents of Rand. A Sun article dated March 17, 1954 reported “St. Pat’s Day loss … No Dragon to Appear on Quad.” The author of the article wrote that the College of Architecture cancelled Dragon Day “in light of the current political scene.” The article went on to quote an unofficial statement from the College of Architecture which read “[c]hasing snakes on such an insignificant scale would appear frustrating, compared to the success professional scalp-hunters have had with more pertinent dangers.” The “more pertinent dangers” the statement refers to are, presumably, related to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) red-baiting.
From 1990-92 the University officially cancelled Dragon Day. The administration had become frustrated with the pranks and vandalism of Dragon Day that were largely the result of an architecture-engineering rivalry. The engineers of the Phoenix Society see it as their duty to ward off the architects’ dragon and at times this resulted in a heated battle. While the Phoenix Society’s attempts to slay the dragon have been weak in recent years, the competition frequently resulted in trips to the emergency room during the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Legend has it, frozen fruit flung from lacrosse sticks caused some of these emergency room trips.) The official cancellation of Dragon Day didn’t stop first year architects, though, and dragons indeed paraded out of Rand Hall during these three years. By 1993, the University had re-sponsored Dragon Day, deciding it was better to have someone involved to manage the day than to let it be a total free-for-all.
One Dragon Day of particular note took place in 1966. During that year, according to a Sun article written at the time of the event, a “specially imported” pig that had been painted green ran squealing into the Ivy Room during the lunch rush. The article continues, saying a “food fight ensued wreaking havoc and forcing the Ivy Room to close for an hour to be cleaned up.” A patrolman even got nailed in the face with a plate of mashed potatoes!
A much more somber Dragon Day occurred two years later in 1968. As the war in Vietnam continued to escalate, architecture students organized an “involvement march” led by a black dragon. Barry Poskanzer ’67, one of the Dragon Day organizers that year, told The Sun, “remember, the march isn’t anti- or pro-war, just pro-involvement.” Poskanzer went on to say that the architecture students “didn’t feel the usual stuff was appropriate or in keeping with the times.”
So how long does it take to build a dragon? Usually under a week. What will this year’s Dragon Day bring? Join the crowd on East Avenue spring semester and you can see for yourself!