Ivy Traditions at USciences


By Dan Flanagan

Fifty years ago a dense growth of ivy threatened Griffith Hall with envelopment. From jumping off points flanking the main entrance, it crept along the colonnade to close the last gap. With mixed emotions, college officials studied their options and decided to pull the ivy from the walls once and for all.

The operation quickly restored the building to its original appearance and brought to light 38 plaques formerly hidden beneath the foliage. The dates, ranging from 1872 to 1945, identified the classes that planted the ivy.


In January 1928 Philadelphia College of Pharmacy moved to West Philadelphia from Tenth Street in Chinatown. Everyone felt duly proud of the new building; no one more so than the alumni contributors who had waited so patiently for the program to come to fruition. Within six months the Alumni Association held its first reunion at the new location. Representatives from nearly every class between 1871 and 1928 attended, with a few from 1868 (who witnessed the Tenth Street opening.) A featured ivy planting ceremony drew participants from over 39 classes who encircled the college and broke ground with a special invocation:

"May this ivy plant, which symbolizes enduring growth, flourish and encompass this material building as does the love of her sons and daughters encompass their Alma Mater."

Twelve classes at the reunion soon took the additional step of identifying their ivy patch with a wall marker, the earliest reading "1872." The plantings instantly became an annual ritual but the plaques took longer to catch on. Only seven additional markers appeared by 1935 but more were encouraged:

"June 2, 1936 will be…Reunion Day for twelve classes…and only two of these have placed plaques. Would it not be a good idea if each of the other ten would be able to dedicate one next year? Why not? Those made of concrete are very inexpensive, look well, and seem to be indestructible; those made of bronze cost but little more." - PCPS Bulletin

By 1945, when the plantings stopped, a total of 38 plaques decorated the walls. Of that number 24 were bronze and 14 were concrete.

Ivy transplanted from PCP’s old home went notably absent from the proceedings. Almost 25 years had elapsed between the opening of the 1928 building and the start of the relocation drive. Since PCP had been planning to move for such a long time, no ivy tradition ever flourished at the old campus. Did the outpouring of enthusiasm in 1928 result from earlier wishes that went unfulfilled? Or did inspiration come from somewhere else?

In 1872 the University of Pennsylvania left center city for rural West Philadelphia. As a token of remembrance, the class of 1873 planted sprigs of ivy beneath a marking stone set into the wall of the new building. Succeeding classes did likewise and by 1928 (when PCP joined the neighborhood) Penn’s Gothic halls were buried in ivy!

Surprisingly, Penn was not a latecomer to the ivy tradition. Despite the pre- Revolutionary War origins of our oldest universities, their institutional associations with ivy began in Victorian times. Harvard and Yale adopted the custom after Penn while Princeton started in 1852, presumably in imitation of their ancient forebears in England.

Curiously, an 1872 London publication entitled “The Ivy: A Monograph Comprising the History…of the Plant” doesn’t mention England’s institutions of higher learning at all. Its author, Shirley Hibberd, speaks of ivy nearly everywhere else though, especially on church walls and cathedrals. In fact Hibberd relied exclusively on churchmen to conduct a “systemic inquiry” into the effects of ivy. Her conclusions were highly favorable:

"Nothing so effectively keeps a building dry as ivy…the leaves acting as a weather-board or vertical tiling, to throw every drop of rain away from it. Its exuberant and web-like roots bind everything together…not a single stone can be removed from its position without first tearing away its protective safeguard...In the case of a dwellinghouse… the screening off of rain is not the only benefit conferred, for walls…are warmer when clothed [in ivy and this]increases the comfort of the inhabitants."

Be that as it may, perceptions of ivy as a destroyer influenced 20th-century thinking more strongly, and many old colleges pulled down their ivy accordingly.

Photographs confirm that PCP's ivy disappeared shortly before June 1964. Ironically, this coincided with the retirement of HARVEY P. FRANK P'1913, associate professor of pharmacy. Frank entered the faculty in 1924 and strongly contributed to the ivy's proliferation as chairman of the Committee on Ivy Plaques in the 1930s and '40s.

Ivy rituals slowed down at PCP during World War II and stopped altogether after 1949, when the belated wartime plaques were finally dedicated. A reinterpretation emerged during the college's 175th anniversary in 1996 using "Ivy Stones" instead of the earlier devices. The revival also made provisions for the missing classes between 1946 and 1995. And so the tradition continues today, minus the troublesome ivy plant itself.

But that's not the end of the story. Oxford University has completed a three-year scientific study that endorses ivy as a preservation asset. The findings are reminiscent of Hibberd’s claims from 1872 (Google: "Oxford University Ivy Study").

Landscapers thoroughly disposed of PCP's ivy a long time ago-except for a stubborn patch on the west side of Griffith Hall that hid under some heavy equipment. As if on cue it’s creeping out again toward the old familiar walls.


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