Dragon Day is an annual event celebrated every spring either on St. Patrick's Day, or immediately before spring break - whatever date happens first.
See the Cornell Rare Manuscripts and Archives collection for photos, videotapes, and other related material to Dragon Day.
The Cornell Era, a periodical which went out of publication in the late 1940's, had once noted that the, "idea of the Architect [at Cornell] is bounded by St. Patrick's Day..." This reference is to the annual event which has become known as Dragon Day on the Cornell campus, and it's strong ties to St. Patrick's Day.
Dragon Day has its roots in the antics of Cornellian Willard Dickerman Straight '01. While on the Cornell campus, Mr. Straight attended the School of Architecture, and from his early days as a freshman, developed a reputation as a prankster, leader, and developer of class unity. It was said at the time that the Architecture class of 1901 was perhaps the most spirited that the University had ever seen, mainly because of the actions of Willard Straight.
The idea of Dragon Day was conceived from a tradition which followed Mr. Straight's belief that there should be a distinctive College of Architecture Day. At the time, he chose St. Patrick's Day, and the first College of Architecture Day was celebrated with the hanging of orange and green banners (orange to appease the campus' Protestant population), shamrocks, and other thematic decorations on Lincoln Hall (which at the time housed the College of Architecture). Later, the additional theme of celebrating St. Patrick's success in driving the serpents out of Ireland also became attached to the holiday.
History has not made clear the time that the first Dragon Day (in contemporary tradition) was held, though it is safe to assume that it occurred sometime between 1897 and 1901 (the years which Willard Straight was on campus). How the first parade evolved into a rite of initiation for the freshman Architecture class - ending with the burning of the dragon on the Arts Quad - has also not been revealed. In an excerpt from a letter to Willard Straight's widow in 1920, the first parade is described: "One year, a 12ft St. Patrick was painted and hung on the side of the building [Lincoln hall] with a great 20ft long serpent chasing after him. In the afternoon, these were taken down, and carried in solemn procession around the campus." The letter goes on to mention that the College of Architecture Day events were at one point abolished by President Schurman (Cornell's third president) - thus helping to establish the tenuous relationship that Dragon Day has come to have with the University administration.
Jumping ahead through the twentieth century, Dragon Day as it is celebrated today (with an actual constructed dragon, and the associated ceremonies) evolved some time in the 1950's when the snakes previously used "grew up." The 1950's architects were also particularly ambitious, sometimes constructing both a male and female dragon. The creation of a thematic work of art and its installation in the second-floor windows of Rand Hall also became an integral part of the celebration. Though history also isn't clear when the actual phrase, "Dragon Day" became coined, speculation suggests that it might have also been in the 1950's. Prior to this time, the holiday was still celebrated as primarily College of Architecture Day, and the theme was less focused around the dragon.
Dragon Day has also been used as a means of political expression. For example, in 1933-34, to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition, students constructed a large paper- mache beer stein for College of Architecture Day. In the 1950's, at the height of Senator McCarthy's "red scare", the holiday was once canceled in protest. In 1968, the dragon was painted entirely black by several students involved in the project to protest the Vietnam War - making that year's parade one of the most controversial amongst the student body. Most recently, in 1994, the theme of Dragon Day was "The Fall of Rome" in protest of the possible cancellation of the Cornell in Rome Architecture Program.
Several other noteworthy celebrations have happened in Dragon Day history. In 1966, as part of the Dragon Day festivities, students released a green pig into the Ivy Room - which ensued a food fight of immense proportions and numerous complaints to the Department of Public Safety. The associated Dragon Day pranks again became problematic for the University in 1974, when Oded Halahmy almost pulled his outdoor sculptures from the University grounds after they had been painted with green paint and moved from their mountings. (This does not include "Song of the Vowels" - the sculpture which stands between Uris and Olin Libraries, and several other pieces of art surrounding the Johnson Museum grounds. Jaques Lipschitz was the artist who designed these.) Other notable dragons appeared in 1964 and 1976, when students built dragons on top of cars and drove them through the parade route. In 1987, the Engineers constructed a large Viking ship to combat the dragon.
The celebration of Dragon Day has not always been viewed positively by the University administration. President Schurman once abolished the holiday because campus Catholics were offended by the theme. The date of its resurrection has not been made clear. The most recent example of University action came in 1990, when the Department of Architecture severed all ties to the holiday, citing the associated campus pranks and sometimes violence which came with the holiday. Prior to this time, the architecture facilities were fully (or more accurately, overtly) open to the students for materials and resources in constructing the dragon. Students could at one point even take a two week course to learn the basics of the machine shop, and then use Dragon Day as hands-on application for the course.
The rivalry between the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering students before and during Dragon Day celebrations seems to have simply developed through history - perhaps as a means of expressing opposition to the Architects having a full day for themselves. No clear date established the rivalry, although it appears to have become fairly intense immediately before the Department of Architecture severed ties with the holiday. Public Safety had previously reported numerous incidents of violence - Engineers, as a method of attempting to destroy the dragon, would freeze fruit to throw at the dragon and fill empty soda bottles with dry ice which would then cause them to explode like miniature bombs. This rivalry has also resulted in a more peaceful sporadic tradition of engineering students constructing a creature to challenge the dragon symbolically. The theme of the creation has varied from phoenix to cobra, penguin or knight on horseback.
Since 1993, the Department of Architecture has allowed ties to slowly reform between itself and the holiday. Dragon Day 1993 represented the first time that the students were allowed to use department resources and the facilities in Rand Hall "legally" for the construction of the dragon. Building the dragon was briefly pushed "underground" in the prior years. The painting and decoration of Rand Hall in 1993 and 1994 has also come about because of this reforming tie. Although the rivalry still exists between the Engineers and the Architects, it appears to be more creative and less violent then in prior years. The freshman architecture class is unified throughout the celebration, and often their class spirit is judged by the dragon which they are able to construct. Every year, a T-shirt is designed by the class, and sold to the Cornell community to help raise money for the Dragon Day project - including a dance/party held by and for the freshman Architecture class later in the semester.
Due to tighter restrictions on controlled fires on campus, the ritual burning of the dragon after it reaches the Arts Quad has become symbolic. Dragon Day co-president (2011) Ryan Petersen said that "because we can't really burn the Dragon anymore ... we're trying to make that part of the tradition continue and be ceremonial and linked to the dragon, and have some sort of end to the parade."
While there are still many aspects to Dragon Day that history has not accounted for, perhaps they are better left shrouded in uncertainty. Architecture students pass along stories of Dragon Days past as folklore and legend, and the holiday might be somewhat devoid of its mystery and surprise if all the bare facts were revealed. As for Architecture Day's founder, Willard Straight went on to fight in World War 1 and died in 1918. He left provisions in his will for the creation of a building to make, "a more humane environment on campus for students." The building, Willard Straight Hall, was dedicated to him by his wife and the University upon its completion in 1925.
Updated 3/17/94; for submission to University Archives, Kroch Library 5/4/94; minor revision 03/12/04 and 01/23/2012 for InfoBase
Staff of the Cornell Information and Referral Center Cornell Rare Archives Collection,
special thanks to Gould P. Colman
The Cornell Era, 6/10/1910, vol.42, #8-9
The Willard Straight Papers
The Cornell Chronicle, 3/21/1974
The Ithaca Journal, 3/16-23/1989
The Cornell Daily Sun, 3/11/1992
The Cornell Daily Sun, 3/17/1994
The Cornell Chronicle, 3/17/2011
Fool on the Hill, Matt Ruff (fiction)
Dragon Day Pictures