Editor’s note: “Between Two Pines” is a weekly column chronicling the history and ecological restoration of various green spaces around the UW and Seattle area.
Sylvan Grove is one of the first places students are introduced to at the UW. Every orientation group visits this spot, and each student is asked to touch the pillar that best reflects their values. As much as I cringe at the acronym “LIFE,” the pillars do represent a space at the UW that is more momentous and touching than you may imagine.
The columns were constructed in 1861 during the UW’s founding, serving as the support columns of the original building that housed the UW. The brainchild of Daniel Bagley, the UW was located on Fourth Avenue and University Street at the time and was known as the Washington Territorial University.
In the 1860s, around 300 people lived in the entirety of King County. But this never stopped the founding members of the UW from believing that a university could be founded alongside the city of Seattle. The guiding philosophy of Bagley and other founders of the school, like Arthur Denny, was education before all else, because without education, there was no way for Seattle to grow. So, the UW grew alongside the city, evolving to accommodate and reflect the changing decades.
By the early 20th century, the UW had grown substantially and needed to relocate. Denny had scraped together 10 square miles of land next to Union Bay for the UW, so the school moved to the donated land.
In 1908, the original building was destroyed, much to Bagley’s dismay. Though he had originally hoped the whole building would survive, the pillars were moved to the Quad, where they remained for only a decade.
By the 1920s, the UW had built the collegiate Gothic buildings that still stand today, and the pillars needed to be moved. The architect Carl F. Gould held a competition to move the pillars, with the winner selecting a designated space for the pillars to stand. By spring of 1921, the pillars were erected in their new, permanent home: Sylvan Grove.
Carved from cedar, the pillars are steadfast reminders of the UW’s storied history.
Surrounded by a grove of different trees, the foliage dampens the noise coming from the outside world. The greenery is part of the restoration of Rainier Vista and the space has a sacred mystique to it. During the spring and summer, orientation leaders and incoming undergraduates will be there to touch the columns. In the evenings throughout the year, people gather for get-togethers. In the daytime, there may be picnics or people taking photos to remember their visit by.
Graduation is especially entertaining, as undergraduates are meant to touch one of the columns — “Loyalty,” “Industry,” “Faith,” or “Efficiency” — before graduation. Tradition mandates that someone can only touch the columns twice throughout their time at the UW; otherwise, they will fail out. While traditions like stealing a brick from Red Square are never formally advertised by the school, this tradition has been openly celebrated by past, present, and likely, future generations.
As I reach the conclusion of my time at the UW, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I visit the columns. I can still remember when I was an awkward freshman figuring out which of the four columns to touch, settling on “Faith” because the line was too long. Back then, the tradition felt contrived, but grew on me with time.
I used to spend lunches there watching the storks fly around and appreciating the wind rustling the surrounding trees. It really is a special place and part of a special school. Soon, I am meeting with some of my old students to lead them in this UW tradition. Hopefully, this will help them appreciate the space as much as I do.
I hope that when you are reading this, you have enjoyed learning about the UW’s history and the various monuments we have on campus. Although we may not always be around to enjoy this lush space meant for exploration, I hope that its spirit can inspire you in the years and decades to come.
Reach columnist Andy Chia at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GreatBaconBaron
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