The Legend of the Penn State Obelisk
For much of its existence, the Obelisk has been shrouded in mystery. Little seems to be known about the actual history of the polylith that stands between the Sackett and Willard buildings; instead, legends have left generations of Penn Staters with different ideas of what the Obelisk represents.
One legend states that the Obelisk is the resting place of Old Coaly, the famous Penn State mule that supposedly hauled the stones for the construction of Old Main. Another myth declares the Obelisk as the exact geographical center of Pennsylvania. Perhaps the most bizarre legend surrounding the Obelisk asserts that the entire structure would collapse if a virgin coed were to stroll by.
The actual origin of Penn State’s oldest monument, however, can be traced back to the School of Mines in 1894, when Dr. Magnus C. Ihlseng, the first Dean of the School of Mines, came up with the idea of building a polylith to enable students to study the weathering qualities of different stones.
With the help William Clinton B. Alexander, a freshman at the time, Dr. Ihlseng was able gather a variety of stones from Pennsylvania quarry operators as well as any others that wanted to contribute to the project. In total, 281 blocks of building stone from 139 different localities were collected, with most of the samples coming from Pennsylvania. However, samples from Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, and England were also utilized for the project.
The 33-foot-tall, 53-ton Obelisk was ultimately erected in 1896 by Michael Womer, a State College stonemason at the time. The stones are arranged in geological order, with the oldest rocks at the bottom and the youngest at the top. In essence, the Obelisk was a testament to the structural material found within Pennsylvania while providing the School of Mines with a hands-on learning tool.
However, those not in the School of Mines were left to speculate about the Obelisk’s existence, allowing legends to formulate around the west campus structure. The most popular (and ridiculous) myth states that any coed virgin who walks by the Obelisk will cause it to crumble. This myth was apparently not limited to Penn State, as it was common among every university with a similar structure. In fact, the legend only originated as a way for the men to mess with the women — to compel them, perhaps — when women first started arriving at college campuses in significant numbers.
Nevertheless, the ‘virgin’ legend was a popular one at University Park, especially throughout the 1960s. A “Down with the Obelisk” was even held as a part of Women’s Week in April 1968 in an effort to prove that the legend was, in fact, a fallacy. During the rally, girls marched around the Obelisk and shouted “London Bridge is falling down—why don’t you?” while holding signs that said “Rock of Ages, Crumble for Me” and “Fall, Stupid.”
The legend apparently grew to such a magnitude that faculty felt the need to step in and restore the Obelisk’s intended image. Professor Emeritus of Meteorology Dr. Charles Hosler wrote, “There seems to be no doubt that Penn State students, alumni, and campus visitors do not realize the actual purpose of the Obelisk. The placing of a bronze plaque would satisfy the curious and educate those who know only the legend.”
Eventually, the plaque was placed on the Obelisk, which read the following:
“OBELISK – Erected in 1896 under the supervision of Professors T. C. Hopkins and M.C. Ihlseng to demonstrate the weathering of Pennsylvania building stones. The collection was made by W.E.B. Alexander, class of 1897. Subject of B.S. thesis of W.E. Affelder, class of 1899. The 281 stones are arranged in geological order.”
And with that, the legend of the Obelisk faded into Penn State history. It’s hard to find anyone on campus nowadays that is aware of the ‘virgin’ legend or the original intent of the Obelisk. For most, the Obelisk is just another structure within the Penn State landscape that we’ve all grown accustomed to on our walks to and from class. It’s certainly a shame, too, because the Obelisk represents an important period in Penn State’s storied history in addition to being a testament to the university’s strength and continued presence throughout the world over the past 120 years.
As Dr. Ihlseng wrote in 1896, “The Obelisk exhibits many of the varieties of structural material with which Pennsylvania is endowed and reveals to the architect at a glance the possibilities of artistic combinations from our native products… Thus the column is not only picturesque but exceedingly valuable to student, visitor, and artisan.”
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About the Author
The symbol of our best looks even better in overalls.
Dvir is a Penn State professor who has made revolutionary documentaries that have played a role in changing today’s world.
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