Dragon Braves the Snow

March 21, 2007

From Rand Hall it came, formed of imagination, steel, rope and a truckload of bamboo from Florida . . .

While a heavy snow fell on campus March 16, the guest of honor at Cornell's 106th annual Dragon Day was paraded through campus before coming to its traditional fiery end on the Arts Quad -- although much of it survived the blaze this year.  

The chimes in McGraw Tower played Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" while about 2,000 people encircled the resting dragon, chanting "Burn it! Burn it!" as Environmental Health and Safety and Cornell University Police officers kept the crowd at a safe distance. A rite of passage and extracurricular team-building for first-year architecture students who design and construct the dragon each year, Dragon Day was initiated as Architect's Day in 1901 by Willard Straight, a member of Cornell's first graduating class of architects.  

"The structure was very innovative this year -- it was intended to incorporate the structural elements into the design," said Eric Suntup '11, one of the builders who wore white jumpsuits and took victory laps around the dragon on the lawn, after removing the creature's head for safekeeping -- another Dragon Day tradition.  

The skeletal bamboo-and-steel design had some of the student builders worried that it would be too heavy to carry, but in the end the class ran with it along the parade route from Rand Hall to Campus Road and back up Ho Plaza to the Arts Quad. If the cumulative weight of the beast was not a problem, the issue of flammability was. In the end, the flames burned through the added hay and cardboard elements, then the ropes holding some of the structure together, causing the wing section to collapse and leaving a pile of blackened bamboo poles. The rest of the dragon -- poles and steel A-frames -- was untouched by fire.  

There was no phoenix from College of Engineering freshmen to battle the dragon this year, but second-year architects joined the parade with an 8-foot-tall papier-mâché and chicken wire head, complete with a smoke machine and a huge Marlboro jutting from its lips -- a likeness of Arthur Ovaska, the College of Architecture, Art and Planning's chair of undergraduate studies. The head's creators wore matching wire glasses, black vests and burlap wigs. (For their part, the first-years taunted AAP facilities manager Charlie Pomada with color cutouts of his face, one hanging from the dragon's neck.)  

Second-years had also helped out the freshman architects by loaning money to purchase the bamboo for the dragon.  

"That was a first; that's going to set a precedent," said Brian E. Beeners, AAP shop manager, who supervises several second-year students as shop teaching assistants.  

Even with the snow, Dragon Day remained a Bacchanalian revel in celebration of spring, traditionally held on the Friday before spring break and accompanied by loud cheering, creative costumes and pranks around campus.  

"The first year I did this, there were unwritten rules, such as materials must be appropriated," said Beeners, who as Dragon Day adviser has supervised the safe, successful construction of 19 dragons. "Students were running off with bedsheets and raiding lumberyards. It was very chaotic. There were lots of rivalries between engineering students and architects, meaning lots of pranks. It's been better the last five years or so; for a time things got so out of hand that the college wanted to distance itself from the event." In those years, the dragon was banned from Rand Hall and came together elsewhere, behind Risley Hall and even in Collegetown.  

The freshman architects stepped up marketing and promotion efforts this year, to raise funds and recoup out-of-pocket expenses for materials. They hawked $10 Dragon Day T-shirts (available in 26 different colors) to passersby on Ho Plaza and at the Collegetown bus stop in front of the Schwartz Center; and promoted T-shirt sales with flyers that riffed on American Apparel ads. "We ordered 3,700 T-shirts and sold nearly all of them," said Mike Lee '11, Dragon Day Committee president. "This is more than double the number of shirts any past year ever sold. We'll sell the remaining ones today and after Spring Break."

Some remaining shirts were delivered to the Cornell Store for post-dragon-burning sales. 

A fifth-year architecture student in a red wig who ignited the dragon would not give her name but said, "Dragon Day is a time of departure for fifth-years, coming after a lot of hard work."

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