From under the button

Senior column by Arielle Pardes | Remembering Penn from my favorite landmark

· May 15, 2014, 6:39 pm   ·  Updated May 15, 2014, 11:20 pm

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N o one wants to hear my senior wisdom (trust me, I read your comments) so rather than share my prudent advice, I want to tell you about my favorite campus landmark: The Button.

The Button is one of the stranger, more complicated pieces of art at Penn. As legend has it, it once belonged on the waistcoat of the bronze Benjamin Franklin statue in front of College Hall and, after a long day of feasting and drinking, old Ben sat back in his chair, his vest a little too snug, and — pop! — the button sprang off, rolled across Locust Walk and magnified to a hundred times its size in front of Van Pelt, where it remains today.

Of course, it didn’t really happen like that. What really happened is that the university commissioned Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg to create something back in 1981, and the weirdo decided to sculpt a giant button. And the thing didn’t just roll across Locust Walk: The Button weighs 5,000 pounds and it cost $100,000 to transport and install on campus.

When it first arrived on campus, the sculpture had mixed reviews. As The Daily Pennsylvanian put it back in 1982, the sculpture garnered a “split reaction” on campus (oh, DP writers, you are so clever). People said that it was “unnecessary” and “weird” (nicer things than people ever said about me in the DP!). Over time, though, it became emblematic of Penn and inseparable from its place opposite Ben Franklin.

If you ask an art critic, they might tell you that the sculpture is characteristic of Oldenburg’s work, which includes others sculptures of everyday objects magnified, like the giant Clothespin that sits on Market Street.

If you ask a Penn student, you might get a raised eyebrow or a mischievous look when they tell you about the legend of having sex under The Button before senior year. (As a senior, I’d love to tell you about this—but I promised this column wouldn’t be about senior wisdom.)

If you ask Claes Oldenburg himself, he might explain that the split in The Button represents the Schuylkill, which, in William Penn’s original design for Philadelphia, divided the city into four distinct squares.

If you ask me, though, The Button is simply the best vantage point at Penn. When I was there last, I had just finished my last (ever!) bout of studying in Van Pelt, and I watched classmates of mine racing up the library steps to do the same. I saw friends of mine picnicking on College Green, a professor I once had walking toward his office in Fisher Bennett, my best friend barreling down Locust Walk and a pair of children climbing atop The Button while their mother watched them from a few paces away, looking the slightest bit anxious that they might fall into the crack.

And to think: There was a time when people said The Button had no place on campus and wanted it rolled away.

Now that I’m about to be rolled away, I think I’ll remember Penn most clearly from the standpoint of The Button, where I’ll remember the mossy green of College Hall, the flood of friends walking down Locust Walk and that sometimes the things that are most controversial — the things that make us raise our eyebrows, question our tastes and push us out of our comfort zone — end up being the best things of all.

Arielle Pardes is a College senior from San Diego and a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist. Her email address is ariellepardes@gmail.com.

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