Leave no stone unturned: My quest to discover just how much paint is on The Rock

BY SAM WAINWRIGHT

Published February 2, 2010

Spin the Cube. Sled in the Arb. Get steamy in the stacks.

These are the things your campus tour guide told your starry-eyed high school self had to be done before graduating. After all, what is being a Michigan Wolverine without some tried and true collegiate traditions?

In your quest to complete this list of must do’s, you’ve probably painted The Rock on the corner of Hill and Washtenaw. If you haven’t, you will before you graduate. And if you don’t, you will be seen as a college failure.
While you were out in the cold at 3 a.m. pouring buckets of industrial-grade paint onto the wet surface, trying to convince yourself that you could successfully cover the old coats with your gallon, you probably had the following conversation with your friends/sorority sisters/campus group-mates:

You: “Hm, I wonder how big the actual rock is?”
Friend: “I bet it’s tiny!”

As I’ve asked myself this question before, I thought it appropriate that as my final act of required collegiate pride, I’d answer it for everyone out there who’s ever wondered just how deep the years of paint on the campus landmark actually are. What follows is my quest to — literally — uncover a piece of campus legend.

To start at the beginning, I’ll admit I’ve always assumed The Rock had been slathered in paint since time immemorial. I imagined a basketball-sized stone somehow accumulating paint over hundreds of years to grow to its present day girth.

Not so much.

When I realized my error — starting with the fact that the University was founded in 1817, not the beginning of time — I headed to the Bentley Historical Library to see if their records could steer me in the right direction.

Here’s what I found: the rock was initially placed on the little triangle of grass at the intersection of Hill and Washtenaw in the winter of 1932. Ann Arbor Parks Superintendent, Eli Gallup, found a large limestone boulder in a county landfill and became quite smitten with it. He decided the rock would make an ideal monument for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth — February 22, 1732 — and convinced the city to foot the $15 bill to transport the stone to its current location.

There it has sat, atop a time capsule and cement slab, unchanged barring the addition of a commemorative copper plaque in 1939 — and the paint.

So, why do we paint the rock?

The story continues: sometime in the mid-50s, a group of wayward Michigan State hooligans defaced the surface of the stoic monument with three big green letters. Obviously, this could not stand.

The “M.S.U.” insignia was quickly covered with a coat of paint, and a tradition was born.

While the city initially attempted to keep the rock clean — and have continued to try at the behest of graffiti-averse neighbors — their efforts have failed in the face of the overwhelming popularity of the pastime.

So we’re only talking about 50 years of paint here, right?

Wrong.

According to Ann Arbor native Brian Durrance, he himself chipped away the layers of paint over the span of two days in the 1980s to reveal the commemorative plaque’s original message: “To George Washington this memorial erected in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, 1932.”

I was starting to doubt the idea that paint was adding any kind of significant size to The Rock, so I looked for concrete, photo evidence.

A 1991 article in the Ann Arbor Observer featured a photo of the planting of the stone at its current location. Though its surface was paint-free, the boulder appeared fairly sizable even from the beginning.

Further sleuthing in the Bentley revealed a number of photos featuring sororities from the 1950s through the 80s happily painting a rather consistently-sized boulder. Yet, I still wasn’t convinced. Old myths die hard, and I wasn’t going to let this one go without some first-hand evidence.

If it took Brian Durrance two days in the ‘80s, surely advances in power-tools over the last 20 years could facilitate my investigation.

Under the cover of darkness, I took to the streets, ready to prove once and for all how big The Rock truly is under all of those layers.

I fired up my drill and started in on the side, still hoping I’d end up arm-deep in fossilized paint.

My core sample? One and a half inches.

I stared incredulously at the small cylinder of dried paint I had extracted. I could see hundreds of thin layers of different colors, like multicolored tree-rings, and looking into the hole I had just created, I could see the chalky grey rock just over an inch inside.

Guessing that the paint had to be deeper than one and a half inches somewhere on the surface, I drilled into a large bump on the opposite side and got down three inches before hitting limestone. Better, but not by much.

I took a final stab near the bottom just above the acrylic stalactites at what looked like the deepest point of paint. I only got five inches in before the limestone snapped my drill bit. Certainly not the endless depth of paint I had
imagined.

So there it is: the facts. The Rock is actually not much bigger than the original limestone Eli Gallup hauled out of the landfill 78 years ago.

Myth busted.