I mentioned that I found a surprise in the box of plans delivered from the Memorial Union. The plans included blueprints with the design of the Union’s zodiac, which is embedded in the floor at the entrance to the Gold Star Hall.
One of the first things you learn when you join the Iowa State community is that it is bad luck to step on the zodiac.
I always thought that this was a pretty clever preservation management strategy as it minimized wear and tear on the sculpture. In fact I had planned to title this post “A Little Superstition Can Be a Good Thing.” Imagine my surprise when I learned that the designer had intended for the work to be worn down. The “Traditions, Myths and Stories” page of the Memorial Union website tells me that:
Architect/designer William T. Proudfoot chose to incorporate the ancient symbols of the zodiac into the north entry floor — classic Greek/Roman mythology for a classic-Greek/Roman-style building. In the 20s, the zodiac was not as well-known as it is now. Proudfoot planned for intentional wearing away of the bronze forms by placing them above the surface of the floor – to be sculpted further by building users until, eventually, they would be the same level as the floor. We know that by 1929, students had decided that if you stepped on the zodiac, it was unlucky – that you’d flunk your next test. Rumor has it that the students created this “curse” because they liked the raised effect of the zodiac and they wanted to preserve the zodiac signs even though it went against what the architect originally intended. Now most students, hedging their bets, walk around. If you accidently invoke the curse, you can throw a coin in the fountain to take it away!
One of the tenets of conservation is to respect the creator’s intent when caring for an object. Knowing that Mr. Proudfoot wanted the steps of the students to wear the zodiac down makes me consider walking on it despite the fact that I would most certainly raise a few eyebrows. I hesitate, however, because there is another way of looking at the situation.
The Memorial Union was built as a living memorial to members of the Iowa State community who lost their lives in World War One. Students and alumni raised the funds to build the building, and to this day they have a justifiable pride and sense of ownership of the building. The tradition of not walking on the zodiac has now become as much of the history of the building as the designer’s original intent.
Mr. Proudfoot died soon after finishing the plans for the Union, so we cannot know what he would have thought of the student’s reinterpretation of his ideas. I’m wondering what you think. Would you walk across the zodiac to leave your mark as Proudfoot intended, or would you join the students in the tradition of walking around it?
I get a giggle out of the fact that the architect’s name was Proudfoot, given the role he envisioned for the feet of Iowa State University students.
I do walk on it. 😉 But I’ve also stopped and read each name on the memorial panels, so I think I’ve honored the intent of the building anyway.
I’ve done the same. Don’t you just love some of the names from WWII? It makes me want to start making up stories about them.
The stone treads on our stairs have been worn with 8 decades of people walking on them. This week, they put rubber treads on them so people would be safer walking up a flight of stone stairs. I am a little sad about that, although I understand it. I loved the wearing away of stone as a metaphor for learning.
I also love local folklore and it’s interesting how the stepping-on-the-zodiac one grew organically. I also love the intent of the wearing away of the work as students walked over it over decades. I wonder in these litigious days if you would be allowed to have a tripping hazard imbedded in your floor?
Thanks for your replies. My unscientific sampling on the day I took the photos tells me that about 5% of the people walk across the zodiac when entering the Union. I think this might actually be a case where two intentions can exist side by side.