Rock Vs. Rock: A history of MSU and U-M's twin graffitied landmarks
MSU has no shortage of unique landmarks: there’s the beautiful Red Cedar River, the iconic statue of Sparty, and the stately Beaumont Tower. But what some MSU students might not know is that one of the most beloved objects on campus – the Rock, located on Farm Lane near the Auditorium – is much less unique than they might think.
In fact, MSU's bitter rivals at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have their own ‘paint rock’. So as they prepare to witness the annual battle for sports supremacy between our two football teams, the two universities face another (admittedly more obscure) rivalry: this duo of paint-covered boulders that decorate their respective campuses.
In what may come as a surprise to some, MSU’s resident boulder billboard has not always been such. In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been at its present location for long.
“It started off as a class gift of the class of 1873,” MSU archivist Megan Badgley Malone said. “It was a large stone that was found in what was called the ‘delta’ area, which was a triangular little piece of land at the corner of Michigan and Grand River, where those two roads converge. Some people found it, and the students dug it up.”
A 1978 article found in MSU’s Archives from an unknown publication, written by one David Janssen, alleges that it took the Class of 1873 and twenty teams of oxen to move the 18,000 year old glacial “pudding stone” to its new location.
“They transferred it to the area near present-day Beaumont Tower,” says Badgley Malone. “At the time, College Hall was in that location, which was the first building on campus ever constructed.” Beaumont Tower wouldn’t be constructed until 1928 – 55 years later.
Originally, the Rock bore an inscription that said “Class ‘73.” That etching has since been covered up by layer upon layer of paint.
For almost a century after its installation, the Rock lay relatively undisturbed. It even became a spot reserved for couples to have romantic getaways.
“During the 1950s ... a little bench was put out in front of the Rock,” says Badgley Malone. “It was called the Engagement Bench, and only engaged couples could sit there.”
However, everything changed with the beginning of the Vietnam War. According to Badgley Malone and various archival documents, students began painting anti-war messages on the Rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was also romantic graffiti – engagement announcements, declarations of love – and the occasional profanity.
Whatever the intent of the graffiti, the University was displeased.
“They tried sandblasting it every time that it was painted, but it was quite costly to remove the graffiti from it,” says Badgley Malone. “It was hundreds of dollars each time it had to be sandblasted.” So the MSU did the unthinkable: they moved the Rock.
In an article by Michael Winter, The State News told the tale on Thursday, September 29, 1977:
Last Friday afternoon, cries of “They’re moving the Rock!” seemed absurd, far-fetched, ridiculous. But sure enough, it was true. At least for awhile.
A crowd of about 35 people stood at a distance and watched as a dozen hefty workers circled the mammoth beast, some wrapping steel cables around it, others digging and tunneling underneath. An umpteen-ton crane latched onto the cables and slowly hoisted the rock a few inches, then a foot, off the ground.
It was then lowered onto a flatbed trailer and hauled away.
The reason for the move? “The University has received a lot of complaints from alumni because of the graffiti and undesirable words,” said Gilbert “Mac” Lloyd, director of grounds at MSU.
Lloyd said it was “an unsightly thing that will be better off in storage,” adding that administrators planned to move the rock in front of the Department of Public Safety building on Red Cedar Road where administrators said they believed it would be safe from further artistic attempts.
Students turned out in droves to protest the move, and then-ASMSU President Kent Barry even turned up to advocate for the Rock’s replacement. The administration, realizing their fault, paid for the rock to be moved back the same day. According to Winter’s article, the replacement cost the same amount as the original sandblasting had.
Even as the Rock returned to its shady home by Beaumont Tower, its future was uncertain. The administration still wanted to stop the graffiti, and the students would not abide by the iconic stone’s removal.
But as the controversy bubbled, time moved forward. And as it turns out, the winds of history are thick with spraypaint. By the early 1980s, the Rock was the public billboard we know it to be today, and in 1985, it made its final move to its present location near the Auditorium on Farm Lane.
Since then, the Rock has become a central part of campus life. It’s a place for meetings, announcements, rushes and memorials. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, approximately 1,200 students and faculty gathered at the Rock for a candlelight vigil.
But one all-important question remains: how deep does the paint on the Rock really go? This is, unfortunately, quite a difficult question to answer definitively. Neither MSU administration nor the MSU Archives hold any information about how much paint has built up over decades of decoration on the front face of the Rock. However, a 2011 art project by then-graduate student Jon Anthony gives one clue to the landmark’s decorative depth.
For a painting entitled “Pet Rock,” Anthony took a core sample of the Rock’s paint, which he then reproduced in the form of a massive work of art that stretches for multiple feet down a hallway in Wells Hall. In an email, Anthony said that his sample, taken from “inconspicuous edge near the left side,” was only about two inches thick. But that isn’t the whole story.
“That is not representative of the whole surface,” Anthony said in his email. “The face of the rock must be AT LEAST 4 inches thick, my best guess would be closer to 6. I would wager the foot, where the bulk of paint runs down the middle, is far and away the thickest portion probably closer to 1-2 feet!“
Unfortunately, Anthony’s guesses and wagers are just those: guesses and wagers. And however likely it may be that the Rock’s paint is indeed that thick, we do not yet know for sure.
U of M Rock
The Rock at the University of Michigan, located at the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and Hill Street in Ann Arbor, has had a similar history – changing from a normal rock to a campus landmark to a perpetually painted piece of stone, all in the span of about 100 years.
According to documents found in the University of Michigan archives with the help of archivist Aprille McKay, the 25,000 year old round boulder – a piece of glacial debris, just like MSU’s rock – was installed on its current site in 1932 by former Ann Arbor park superintendent Eli Gallup, who often installed large rocks in public parks to serve as memorials and historical markers.
It was originally intended as a memorial for the 200th birthday of George Washington, and even fitted with a copper plaque to commemorate the occasion. This was a tall order during the Great Depression, for copper was both expensive and rare. According to a 1972 report in the Ann Arbor News by Janet Ware, Gallup was seen scrounging around in dumps in order to collect enough copper to create a plaque sufficient to properly memorialize Washington.
Once the plaque was ready to go, Gallup used a truck donated by Detroit Edison to move the rock into place and onto its concrete foundation. The whole event was captured on film. Inside the foundation was a lead time capsule containing a history of the rock and of its placement. In the 1972 article, Gallup’s wife explains that he hoped it would sufficiently explain the rock’s unusual location to archaeologists 2,000 years in the future.
And so, the rock, plaque and all, sat undisturbed for decades. That is, until people began painting it. Though the article in the Ann Arbor News does not state a reason for the painting, legend provides an answer. According to a report in The Michigan Daily from 2010, a group of students from MSU painted the letters “M.S.U.” on the rock, and it was quickly painted over by another coat of paint from incensed U of M students. After that, the painting didn’t stop.
In the 1972 article, Mrs. Gallup expresses dismay at the constant painting. Apparently a sign had been placed to deter what was then considered vandalism, pleading with people to not paint the memorial.
Just like MSU’s administration, Gallup sandblasted the rock multiple times to remove paint, but stopped when he realized it was also removing layers of stone from the boulder’s surface. Since his death in 1964, the city of Ann Arbor considered moving the rock to a more heavily patrolled public park, but nothing came of it, and the rock continued to be painted.
According to legend, the plaque memorializing George Washington was last seen in the 1980s, and has since disappeared into the acrylic depths.
Nowadays, U of M’s rock is used for similar purposes as MSU's: as a billboard, a public art canvas, and as a landmark.
Unlike MSU’s rock, however, there is a definitive answer to the question of paint depth. In 2010, Michigan Daily reporter Sam Wainwright set out to discover how much paint had been splattered on the rock since the painting began some decades prior.
His core sample from the bottom face of the rock, taken in the dead of night, measured five inches.