One More: The Campus Rostrum

A speaker attempts to hold forth on the Rostrum in 1915, a time of turmoil over free speech issues at the University. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

A speaker attempts to hold forth on the Rostrum in 1915, a time of turmoil over free speech issues at the University. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

A big chunk of rock has been part of University of Utah campus history for a century, yet its whereabouts during some of that time remain a mystery. The Rostrum, a large granite boulder, started out as a feature in a pep rally for a 1913 football game against the University of Colorado at Boulder. Festooned with a “Bust Boulder” sign, the rock was loaded onto a wagon by freshmen and paraded around Presidents Circle. The parade continued through downtown Salt Lake City, where the boulder fell off the wagon and onto the streetcar tracks. It was shoved aside and later was moved to a spot near the flagpole in front of the U’s Park Building (then under construction). Since freshmen were required to wear green beanies as a mark of their lower-classmen status, the boulder soon sported a coat of green paint and the year of their class. U administrators and upper classmen, however, weren’t pleased, and the freshmen were required to clean off the paint and numbers and construct a concrete base for the boulder. A few years later, the Rostrum had taken on such an air of tradition that the junior class affixed a bronze plaque near the boulder with the year of their graduation, “1916.”

The Rostrum had by then begun serving its namesake function of providing a place for public speaking. For Senior Chapel Day in 1915, a crowd gathered to hear the junior class perform “the burial rites of the rightly deceased Seniors,” according to the Utonian yearbook. Also in 1915, a time of great turmoil at the U regarding free speech issues, a group of “Democratic speakers” attempted to hold forth on the rock but were told to leave the campus by the U’s president, Joseph Kingsbury, according to a satirical account in the Utonian. A 1955 Daily Utah Chronicle article noted: “Here it was that all candidates for school office could have their say by simply standing on the rock. A crowd gathered immediately to hear the speech-maker.”

The tradition of painting the rock in the school colors—crimson with a large white U—also became firmly established over the years, but the Rostrum was still frequently splashed with green paint by the freshmen, only to be repainted. In 1937, the Rostrum was moved away from the flagpole, where it could be painted without endangering infrastructure.

By 1944, though, the repaintings had become nightly, rather than annual, with “nurses, Army, and neighborhood vandals” visiting the rock to make their mark, even covering it with stripes or polkadots, according to the Chronicle. U administrators decided to move it into a glass case in the basement of the Park Building. But the move didn’t stop the painters. Staff members came in one day to find that the glass had been removed and the rock once again painted green.

By 1946, the rock had become such an annoyance that some administrators wanted to remove it and “bury it in a field,” the Chronicle noted. In 1953, the Chronicle wrote that the rock had been taken to the mountains and dumped several years earlier. Nonetheless, it (or a replacement) was brought back to the base of the flagpole, only to be removed yet again, however, and this time supposedly “destroyed by dynamite.” A 1964 Chronicle article notes that a new boulder was placed in Presidents Circle, while “the original rock has never again appeared, but is believed to be buried somewhere on campus.”

By 1967, students were again being urged to use the Rostrum as a speaker’s platform. “Many are the student voices searching for a platform, and you don’t have to buy a press or rent a building to use the rock,” the Chronicle wrote. “It is one school tradition we shouldn’t lose.”

Questions remain regarding possible whereabouts of the original Rostrum. But in historical photos from 1915 to 1991, the rock appears identical. So if it was removed from campus in the 1950s, was the same rock at some point recovered and returned to a place of honor on Presidents Circle? The Rostrum sits there still, if you want to wander by and take a look.

—Roy Webb BA’84 MS’91 is a multimedia archivist with the J. Willard Marriott Library.

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7 thoughts on “One More: The Campus Rostrum

  • I’m glad to learn of this simple object of campus tradition. When I was on campus (1949-1952) everything was super serious for getting one’s education; the G.I. Bill was an overriding force among many of the students so preoccupied (I was one of them), and occasions for using the rostrum just didn’t come up. So … thank you, Continuum, for bringing this tradition to light.

  • Was happy to see the Rostrum getting some press. As a classics professor at the U, I have been intrigued by this lonely monument since I hired on here. You filled in some gaps about the history of the Rostrum in the 50’s and 60’s that I hadn’t come across. I wonder about the switching out of the stone. Some of the images do seem to contain a stone that looks taller than the one that sits in Presidents Circle now…

    So this is the centennial of the Rostrum!!!

  • We visited the Rostrum today on its centennial day, April 16, 2014. Wondering what it meant, I came across this article. After comparing my photos and those in the article, I’d say it is the original rock. Or would like to think so. Thanks for the interesting history.

  • ‘Rostrum’ is a classical footprint in academic culture. The term applies to any platform on which a citizen is entitled to orate on political topics. The origin was a platform in the Forum decorated with rams — rostra — from six enemy warships from the battle of Antium.

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