WRITTEN BY PHOEBE MALTZ, '05
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN DRY
A little-known and short-lived
campus tradition lies at the root of the University of Chicago’s
The campus ivy didn’t just start climbing
on its own. Ivy exercises—ceremonies accompanying ivy-planting—were
held during the University’s Junior College Day from the late
1800s until the early 1900s, when such ceremonies peaked at schools
nationwide. Chicago’s ivy tradition was forgotten until this
June when a Junior Ivy Day stone—a limestone slab engraved,
“Junior Day Ivy, 1907, 16th Anniversary” —was
unearthed near Stuart Hall during the quad utilities project. The
discovery led archivists to dig deeper into Chicago’s ivy.
In their heyday Junior College Days were morning-till-night
events involving athletics, plays, a prom, and ivy exercises, during
which shoots were planted next to buildings including Bartlett,
Haskell, and Walker. Women and men of the Junior College participated
in the ivy spade presentation, served on the ivy committee, and
performed music at the exercises.
As the years wore on, the exercises grew shorter
and earlier in the day until they disappeared around 1910. The July
1909 Magazine reported ivy exercises that June; but the
1911 yearbook, the Cap and Gown, made no mention of ivy,
noting, however, that the Junior Prom had been replaced in 1910
by the Interclass Hop, which the author considered “more hospitable
and democratic than the older arrangement.”
It may have been that Chicago, like many of its
peers, abandoned ivy traditions because of the damage the vine was
thought to cause. As early as 1877, the Harvard Crimson
noted, “When it was discovered that the ivy…served only
as a bait to the white ants, ruthless hands were ready to tear down
the offending vine, and no one seemed to mind the sacrilege. It
would be very foolish now to revive ivy planting...”
Ivy-planting traditions remained popular at many
colleges after Harvard’s ended; some continue to this day.
And as University Planner Richard Bumstead points out, ivy doesn’t
damage stone walls or mortar, though it harms wooden windows; in
fact, ivy shields buildings from the sun, reducing air-conditioning
The Collegiate Gothic style of architecture dominated
campus construction in the era of ivy traditions; both were part
of American schools’ attempt to resemble Oxford and Cambridge.
Chicago was no exception: its first building, Cobb Lecture Hall
(1892), is Collegiate Gothic. Chicago’s ivy added instant
tradition to its harsh, Gothic-style structures.
The rise and fall of Chicago’s ivy exercises
may reveal an institutional ambivalence toward other colleges’
non-academic traditions. Indeed, there is much to be said for not
swallowing ivy days whole; on Ascension Day at Oxford, a college
there traditionally serves up ground-ivy beer.