FROM THE ARCHIVES: The True History of the Fence, Part 1

Credit: William Curvan/Forum Editor Credit: William Curvan/Forum Editor Credit: William Curvan/Forum Editor Credit: William Curvan/Forum Editor

Every installment of "From the Archives" — nay, every article I have ever written for this paper — is but a prelude to this. Before you is the culmination of 18 months of on-and-off work; publishing this was half the reason I joined The Tartan. In short, I have discovered that everything you've been told about The Fence is a lie, and I'm here to (partially) set the record straight. I don't have all the answers, but I have enough; and as we rapidly approach our beloved Fence's 100th birthday, it's high time somebody gets the facts out there.

So let's talk about the lies. The most common story of The Fence — the ones that tour guides tell prospective students — goes as follows:

Back in ye olden days, the Cut was a proper ravine, over which spanned a bridge. The men of Carnegie Tech, rizz kings that they were, would leave notes and such for the dames of Maggie Mo as they traversed the bridge. But eventually, the Cut filled and the students lost their meeting point. So they constructed a fence to replace it, a place where the men and women of the sibling schools could once again meet and mingle. Until the dastardly administration grew weary, and made plans to tear it down. But! The night before its demolition, a frat painted over The Fence to advertise a party — and boy was it the most rockin' party ever seen on this side of Craig Street. It was so popular that administration relented and The Fence has been a student billboard ever since. It stood until 1993, when it collapsed and was replaced with a steel-reinforced concrete Fence.

What a cute story! Just a few questions. Which frat painted The Fence? And when did this party happen? And how long was The Fence around before it got painted? Also, take a moment to consider the geography of campus — the Cut used to run from the tennis courts to the hollow between Doherty and Gates. That doesn't at all stop you from walking from the Mall to the front entrance Maggie Mo, does it?

So, an inquisitive mind might take to Google for clarification, and discover the delightful Wikipedia page on Carnegie Mellon traditions, with a whole section about The Fence! It tells essentially the same story. It cites two web pages: a Tartan article, and a defunct page on the CIT website, neither of which are very helpful. (There's a third relevant citation added by yours truly, but we'll get to that in part 2).

So let's say you check out this lovely little 2014 article from Atlas Obscura, which tells us, "Carnegie Mellon University Students Painted a fence for 70 years…it would collapse under the weight of all those coats in 1993." So 1923 must have been the year it was first painted, great!

But wait. 30 seconds into a video on the official CMU YouTube page, our narrator says that The Fence must be painted with "1930s technology"? That doesn't really line up with the 1923 argument, does it?

It gets worse. In a 2015 article from the New York Times, bastion of journalistic integrity they are, we get the frustratingly vague line, "[it] collapsed in 1993 under the weight of some 50 years of paint." So 1943? Do they mean that in the middle of the WWII draft that frats were hoppin' enough to throw parties?

Oh, but we still have more potential dates. In 2014, Amusing Planet told us, "For the last 70 years, students have been using The Fence as the unofficial campus billboard." I really want to believe that their "70 years" figure is a misunderstanding of the 70-year period between 1923 and 1993 reported by so many other sources, but if we take them at their word they're claiming the Fence was first painted in 1944. So we have about a two decade margin of error for the initial painting of The Fence, not to mention that we don't know how much time passed between its construction and the alleged frat party.

But we're not even close to being finished with the confusion! You see, the stories which circulate about The Fence are not static. Early on, I received a tip that the fourth floor women's bathroom in the west wing of Doherty has a poster (pictured here) with a history of The Fence. Except, it's just a weird allegory about why you should wash your hands. Yet, it cites a book — "Carnegie Mellon: A Centennial History." This is a genuine history book, written by Edwin Fenton, former dean at Carnegie Mellon, in 2000. If you check this book out of the Hunt library and turn to page 91 (or 6 in pillbox), you'll see that absolutely none of what this poster says is actually in the book. I don't mean to get conspiratorial, but it feels like someone is pulling the strings here to waste my time.

If you speak with alumni, you'll also learn that in the 90s, it was said that The Fence used to denote the boundary of an old cow pasture — the kernel of truth, no doubt, is that the plot of land on which our university sits used to be "Chadwick Farms." But this seems no more plausible than our bridge-frat story.

With yet another conflicting story, Bob Reppe, the University Master Architect, tells us in a video on the CMU Instagram that The Fence was built to keep people from falling into the Cut. Not entirely implausible, because Margaret Morrison Avenue (formerly Woodlawn Street) used to extend through campus along what are currently pedestrian paths. It's not hard to imagine there would have been a guardrail of sorts. So put that in the "maybe" pile?

Let's pause and take a sidebar to talk about dirt. The Cut is pretty damn big, so where did all that dirt come from? Bob, in the earlier video, says the landfill came from the leveling of Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Wikipedia agrees that Grant Street was leveled in 1912, citing the book "Downtown Pittsburgh" by Stuart Boehmig. So I got this book from the library, but it sadly has no word on where the dirt was sent. So I reached out to Bob Reppe himself, who told me that this information came from an old colleague of his from the county records office who has since passed. So perhaps the one person with answers is no longer with us.

But in contrast to the Grant Street hypothesis, the Wikipedia page on Carnegie Mellon says, "The Cut was formed by filling in a ravine … with soil from a nearby hill that was leveled to build the College of Fine Arts building." They make no citations.

"The Story of Carnegie Tech" is a history book written in 1935 by former Dean of CIT Arthur Wilson Tarbell, a copy of which I was kindly gifted by the University Archives. Wikipedia is, surprisingly, vindicated because on page 132 we learn that "a hill 43 feet high was cut down to provide a location for the College of Fine Arts … gradually, the ravine has been reduced in width and depth by influx of earth from both sides." Most likely, a bit of Grant Street, the CFA hill, and other bits of uneven ground were all dumped into the Cut to provide the level path between the Mall and Forbes Avenue that was so coveted by Hornbostel.

Oh yeah, that's a sidebar to this sidebar that I learned in "Centennial History." If you want further proof that there was never a bridge across the Cut, on page 37 we are told that Henry Hornbostel, the original campus architect, apparently always wanted a bridge to cross the Cut and connect campus to Forbes Ave — implying he never got one.

Last word on the dirt. While it's hard to pinpoint an exact year for when the Cut was filled, on page 207 of "The Story of Carnegie Tech," we have a picture of a unit of soldiers lined up on the Cut from 1917, putting an upper bound on when it could have been filled.

No more sidebars, I have one final lie to debunk. Nearly every source claims that The Fence held the Guinness World Record for "most painted object in the world" prior to 1993. In fact, if you Google those exact words you get an answer box from this gorgeously designed page by the School of Computer Science. Except, as someone who used to incessantly read the Guinness books as a child, I could have sworn once I read something different. Sure enough, the Guinness site itself tells us this record was earned in 2004 by a baseball coated in several feet of paint, easily beating The Fence.

But what if. What if The Fence won this record prior to 1993, before Guinness started documenting records online? Before Michael Carmichael of Alexandria, Indiana started painting his baseball? The only way to verify that would be to go through physical editions of the Guinness Book of World Records for every possible year The Fence could have won this record. And that would be preposterous, wouldn't it?

So of course, my roommate and I went to CLP Main and asked the very nice librarian at the reference desk for every copy of the Guinness Book of World Records prior to 1993 in their collections. And 30 minutes later, a very disgruntled librarian gave us seven such copies. While checking these, it dawned on us that "most painted object" was simply not a record back in the olden days. Before Guinness revamped its look in the early 2000s with iridescent covers, gigantic images, and ridiculous records ("most straws fit in a mouth while hula-hooping underwater"), their art and sculpture section was much more dignified. Most expensive painting, largest painting, and most prolific painter are there, but nothing as frivolous as "most painted object." It's here I reveal my hand a little bit and tell you that at this point in my research, I had solid proof that painting the Fence has only been a tradition since, at the earliest, the late 50s. So we only checked as far back as 1960.

But what if. What if there was a one-off edition sometime between 1960 and 1993 where they introduced this award just to give it to the Fence. So I made an account on the Internet Archive and checked out copies of every edition we couldn't get our hands on, and sure enough absolutely none of them mention our beloved Fence. (Sidenote, if The Internet Archive loses its appeal in this ongoing suit I couldn't have done the search.)

I admit there is a chance I missed it. Maybe buried somewhere in the tens of thousands of pages of records published by Guinness since 1960 lies our Fence, waiting for someone to find it. But seeing as Guinness has yet to respond to any of my emails, I'll have to Occam's-razor this one and say the rumor is probably not true.

I've just spent almost 2,000 words telling you what the Fence isn't. You might be wondering, "Gee, Will, where is all that nice archival research you were telling me about?" Don't fret, I will reveal everything soon enough. In part 2, and then just a bit more in part 3. So stick around so I can tell you all the interesting things I've learned. In truth, I didn't find all I had hoped for. But I outline what else can be done, in case some future researcher with slightly more dedication and slightly fewer credit hours decides to actually get to the bottom of this.