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The Rock Records and Artifacts

Identifier: 0/25/1

  • Staff Only
  • No requestable containers

Scope and Contents

This collection consists of two physical artifacts along with a set of newspaper clippings and other documents relating to the acquisition, placement, and traditions surrounding the Northwestern University Rock.  The artifacts include:

--a small fragment of the Rock, acquired by University Archives staff at the time of its 1989 move.  That section is unmarked and undamaged by paint and appears to have come from the base or an interior section of the landmark; and

--a section of many layers of dried paint that had covered the Rock before removal by The Rock Excavation Organization in 2009.


  • 1902-2016

Conditions Governing Access

There are no restrictions on use of the materials in the department for research; all patrons must comply with federal copyright regulations.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is stored at a remote campus location and requires two business days advance notice for retrieval. Please contact the McCormick Library at or 847-491-3635 for more information or to schedule an appointment to view the collection.

Biographical / Historical

The Rock is a landmark on the Evanston Campus of Northwestern University. A large boulder of Baraboo quartzite taken from the Devil’s Lake region of Wisconsin, the Rock – as it has been known to many generations of Northwestern students – was brought to campus as a gift from the University’s graduating class of 1902. Northwestern students of that time had become familiar with the landscape and geological features of central Wisconsin from curricular field trips to that area.

The Rock at one time incorporated rudimentary plumbing, a trickling water spout, and a small water retention basin. That is, at its original placement at Northwestern, the Rock served as a naturalistically styled water fountain. The fountain failed at some unknown point in time but, even so, the Rock has remained prominent on campus, a monument to its donors, a meeting place for students, and a gathering spot for many social, cultural, and political events and rallies.

The tradition of painting the Rock began as early as 1938 when it received a coat of red paint following a Minnesota victory in football at Northwestern’s homecoming game. A subsequent event occurred in 1941 when a coat of white paint and the numerals “44” appeared on the Rock, presumably put there by a member or members of Northwestern’s freshman class. Other such incidents, generally viewed as regrettable acts of vandalism, occurred sporadically to the Rock during the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. By the mid-1960s, painting the Rock had taken on the patina of campus ritual, a way to demonstrate student spirit. Eventually, such painting became a celebrated tradition at Northwestern. Remarkably, some Northwestern students in May, 1971, were questioned by campus police for removing paint from the Rock, opining that the landmark looked better in its natural condition.

The practice of painting the Rock had become exuberant by the late 1980s, with adjacent surfaces, including trees and sidewalks also coated by students. The problem of confining the paint to a more limited area caused University administrators to move the Rock, in summer, 1989, from its original campus location, located halfway between University and Harris halls to a spot about 30 feet east and isolated from pedestrian traffic patterns. The Rock, when chiseled from its base in preparation for the move, split into sections which were later mortared back into place. Staff of Northwestern University Archives salvaged a small piece of the Rock at that time and added into the University’s historical collections.

In 2009, a student group operating under the guise of “The Rock Excavation Organization” generated controversy by using hand tools to remove the hundreds of coats of paint which had accumulated on the Rock. Once again, staff of University Archives sprang into action, securing for its collection a large, thick section of that paint. Soon after removal of its layers paint, the Rock became again the object of regular, often daily coatings.


3.00 Boxes

Language of Materials



This collection includes documents, clippings, and artifacts relating to the history of The Rock (originally a drinking fountain),  a landmark on Northwestern University's Evanston campus since 1902.

Arrangement Note

Clippings and documents fill a half-size archival box; the Rock fragment is in a small artifacts box; the paint section is in an oversized drop-front box.

Method of Acquisition

The clippings and related documents were removed from the subject file collection of University Archives.  The piece of the Rock and the layers of dried paint were acquired by representatives of Northwestern University Archives in 1989 and in 2009.

Related Materials

See also the information and photographs on the University Archives' "Northwestern Architecture" website; and the Archives photographic collection.

Guide to the Rock Records and Artifacts
Kevin B. Leonard
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Library Details

Part of the Northwestern University Archives Repository

Deering Library, Level 3
1970 Campus Dr.
Evanston IL 60208-2300 US