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?

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