Located just outside Van Pelt Library, the Button has become a central landmark on Penn’s campus since 1981, but there’s always been one problem: it’s broken.
In response to a petition signed by over 3,000 Penn alumni and current students, the University has decided to fix the Button over the summer. By the fall, students will return to campus to find the Button glued together, with only a faint line remaining as a reminder of the sculpture’s past.
The petition was started by Wharton senior Grace Marshall, a tour guide who had had enough of walking by the broken Button every day on her way to study or while giving tours and decided to do something about it.
“There was something about the Button that annoyed me ever since I started attending Penn,” Marshall said. “When I started giving tours my sophomore year, I’d try and avoid talking about the Button as much as possible. It just isn’t attractive or inspiring — or anything really. That’s why I wanted it fixed.”
Marshall started by trying to spread the word about her petition on Facebook and other social media sites. Though a couple students did sign, the petition only started blowing up, she said, when an alumnus found it.
“I was immensely surprised by the passion of the alumni who signed the petition,” Marshall said. “They cared so much and really wanted to see this change made. For me, it confirmed that making this petition was the right thing to do, and further inspired me to continue to push this cause.”
The alumni's response, however, is not all that surprising when one considers the initial reaction to the Button when it was first installed in 1981.
The Button (officially called the Split Button) was designed by Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg, who had originally planned for it to be a whole button. While being transported to Penn, however, the sculpture split in two, and Oldenburg, who had already started his next sculpture, did not feel the need to try and fix it.
Penn alumna Sherri Brown, who was about to enter her sophomore year at Penn when the Button was installed, recounts the student body’s reactions to the new sculpture.
“People were furious,” Brown said. Not only did it invade the open space around College Green, but also it was broken. It just felt incomplete and gave off this sense of failure. Not to mention, it was extremely ugly.”
Penn alum Nick Jones, a junior at the time of the Button’s installation, confirmed that the student body was mad about the new sculpture. He said that the new Button might inspire him to come back to Penn.
“A friend from Penn sent me the link to the petition and as soon as I saw it I signed,” Jones said, “We both agreed we would go back to visit campus if the Button was fixed just to see it without that horrendous crack.”
Though Marshall will not be attending Penn next fall when the new Button is released, she said she is pleased to know that new students will no longer have to pass a broken button every day.
“It’s kind of upsetting that I’ll never be able to do a tour with the new Button,” Marshall said, “But just knowing that no other tour guides will have to purposefully avoid the sculpture is extremely satisfying.”
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