From the Archives: The True History of The Fence, part III: The modern Fence
Last week, I revealed to you my two major discoveries about The Fence — the birthday of The Fence (which had been roughly known by people in the know for a while, although now we have the exact date), and definitive photographic proof that our contemporary legend about a bridge over the Cut is completely unevidenced. Now we get to the second major question — when did painting become the modern tradition?
From very early on, it was obvious that painting The Fence didn't emerge as a tradition until at least the '50s or '60s. This comes from two photos, both from one of the first sources I checked — a 2019 YouTube video titled "Isaac Mills Explains the CMU Fence Tradition." In the first, a group of people is painting a very paintless Fence with the words "class of 1966" tagged on one of the railings; in the second, the sisters of AΧΩ are standing on the Fence with the Hunt Library (built in 1960) in the background. Neither of these has any context, so I set out to learn more.
I searched our Digital Archives for the word "fence," setting the filters so I would only get results from The Tartan between 1960 and 1970. The earliest reporting I found about The Fence (not just any old fence, which receives a surprising amount of coverage when you look for them) was an article from September 23, 1964, in which the freshman class is said to have painted The Fence to protest the "Traditions Test" (which, as far as I can tell was a hazing-adjacent ritual the upperclassmen used to subject upon first-years.) The rebellious plebes painted, "Violets are blue, Roses are red, Forget the Traditions Test, Stay in bed." The writers note that the test was held indoors to "prevent freshmen from building a bonfire with the tests. This was done last year."
Given how nonchalant the authors are in reporting this, I feel certain that it must have been an established tradition to paint The Fence at this point — I find it extremely unlikely that the first ever instance of students painting The Fence would be reported on with such little fanfare.
But unfortunately, this was the earliest print source I could find. So I had to start speaking with people who were actually there, who would have first-hand recollection of what happened, as it sure seems like nobody was reporting on it at the time (and why would they? If somebody painted The Fence for the first time, everybody would have seen it anyway). I started speaking with people who had worked at the university for a long time and slowly worked my way back to find people who had gone to this school in the 1960s.
However, my chain of sources ended rather quickly. The earliest source I spoke with was Barri Simpson (class of 1968), who told me, much to my surprise, that painting The Fence was solidly a tradition by her freshman year of 1964. According to Simpson, it was almost entirely painted by fraternities and clubs to advertise events and parties — in these hectic days before rules of the Fence were codified, she says that the Fence could even be painted multiple times in a single night. Perhaps because 1964 is a bit before the wave of campus activism and student riots had really swept the country, Simpson claims that "It had nothing to do with activism."
If anybody wishes to pick up this research in the future (and who knows, maybe that'll be me someday), this is the major point where I didn't find answers. I can tell you for certain that in 1964, it was well-established to paint The Fence to advertise parties. As to who painted it first and why they did, I've got nothing. The next step is to talk to keep working backward and talk to people who went to school in the late 50s.
I want to circle back to the "class of 1966" photo for a moment, because it looks for all the world like the people in the foreground are painting directly onto unpainted wood. Assuming these class of '66 people aren't high schoolers, the earliest this could have been taken was 1962, which doesn't completely jive with Barri Simpson's testimonial that it was a very long-established tradition by 1964. Also, notice that the posts seem to be very thickly layered with paint. Julia Corrin, University Archivist, told me that she believes a rail on The Fence was replaced in 1966. While I couldn't find anything in the Thistle or Tartan to confirm this, it simply works too well as an explanation for this photo. The unpainted railing is the new one, and the class of '66 seniors was given the special privilege of being the first to put a coat of paint on it. So they tagged it with spray paint before going at it with brushes. Mystery solved.
Before I wrap things up, I want to dispel a very common misconception I hear about the Fence. Everybody seems to believe that after collapsing in 1993, it was replaced with a steel-reinforced concrete Fence. Carnegie Mellon's official page on campus traditions repeats this, in addition to repeating the lie that it was the "most painted object in the world" (they also link, as their only citation, the dubious Atlas Obscura article I complained about in part I).
In my research, I spoke with a number of people in facilities management who either worked at Carnegie Mellon in the 90s, or work with people who do. Don Coffelt, the Associate Vice President for Facilities Management, told me in an email that the current railings are made of 4x4 pressure-treated lumber, and the posts are made of concrete; Leonard Libbon, Assistant Director of Facilities Management, agrees with these details. Bob Reppe, the University Architect not only agrees that the railings are wood, but told me that if you reach under the bottom railing closest to CFA you can actually feel the wood. After trying this myself, it baffles me how this completely incorrect piece of information is so ubiquitously known as fact when so many people involved in the replacement are still around. Go ahead and feel it for yourself.
So there you have it. I wish I had a stronger conclusion, but if I let this linger in my Google Drive any longer it would simply never get it done — and the 100th anniversary of The Fence is as good a time as any to share what I've found. I argue that this half-ass, disappointing ending to over 18 months of work is actually completely consistent with The Fence's history. On January 24, 1923, The Tartan reported that "The Senior Fence, at last, after years of discussion, controversy, shifting of responsibility, and disinterestness [sic] of those involved, will be constructed and within a month." So really, my inconsistency and lack of commitment to this project is the perfect way to honor our forebears who built us this beloved campus artifact.
I hope you've enjoyed reading my column for the last three weeks as much as I've enjoyed working on this (and who knows, I may be back in the future with more findings). Go forth with the knowledge I have armed you with and spread the truth about our Fence because it has too long been the subject of lies and rumors. Thank you for coming with me on this journey.