Debunking GW’s Myths, rumors and urban legans

The mind has an interesting way of inventing colorful interpretations of stories we hear from someone else. We listen intently to every bit of hearsay, revise it to our liking and then pass along a new version of the original story.

Rumors, legends and myths are phenomena that have been sweeping high schools for generations. The gossip and slanderous storytelling does not end on high school graduation day, however. Rumors, tall tales and urban legends are imbedded in our culture and involve everyone, including GW students. Here, the truth is revealed about GW’s rumors, legends and myths.

Subject: Thurston Hall

Story: Students cannot access the roof of Thurston Hall because they will get shot.

Explanation: Within blocks from the White House, Thurston Hall is incorporated in the boundaries of a heightened security zone. Students using the roof for recreational purposes risk being mistaken for a suspicious or malevolent person. The U.S. Secret Service, acting to protect the President, will accidentally shoot students. While this case of mistaken identity has fatal consequences, it is also very bad for the University’s image. As a result, the Thurston rooftop is deemed off-limits.

Status: Legend

The Real Deal: While it is true that the roof of Thurston Hall is not accessible to students, this legend is a case of an exaggerated D.C. conspiracy. In reality, the reasoning is less imaginative.

“The Thurston Hall rooftop is not accessible to students because it is not designed for student use,” said James Kohl, director of Residential Life and Education.

Other GW residence halls, such as Strong Hall and HOVA, have rooftops accessible to students, but this has nothing to do with their location.

“All residence hall roof tops that are accessible to students have either a fence or railing surrounding a deck or terrace that confines students to those designated spaces,” Kohl said, adding that Thurston’s roof is not appropriately equipped to allow for student use.

The origins of this legend remain unclear, but Kohl said the roof has never been accessible to students simply due to practical logic.

Subject: J Street

Story: Pierre L’Enfant, the French architect selected by George Washington to design the layout for the new capital district, intentionally excluded the letter “J” in the city plan because of a personal grudge against John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Explanation: Apparently, John Jay and L’Enfant’s wife were having an affair.

Status: Myth

The Real Deal: If the District’s layout seems nonsensical, it is. But curious and creative district-dwellers mused over the absence of “J” Street and fabricated a racy story. In fact, the exclusion of the letter J from the street system was perfectly reasonable at the time of planning. According to the City Museum of D.C., “The letters I and J were indistinguishable from each other, especially in 18th century hand-writing … They were interchangeable.”

A Washington Post article from September 7, 1986, confirms that, “as late as 1818, J was treated by dictionaries as an I-consonant,” meaning the letters I and J were basically the same thing in writing. So, in the 1790s, at the time of D.C.’s planning, there was no need for a street called “J” because it would have led to confusion.

The myth is further exposed when we learn that L’Enfant never completed the city grid because he was fired before he could fulfill the task. George Washington then selected Andrew Ellicott to finalize the District’s construction.

Subject: Funger Hall

Story: The construction of Funger Hall was funded by the Shah of Iran.

Explanation: Funger Hall, originally named Building C in the 1970s, was funded by the Shah of Iran, though given a different name due to political sensitivity.

Status: Rumor

The Real Deal: This rumor has been passed around for many years, though its origins are unclear. Stories have been traced back as far as the 1970s when Funger Hall was named Building C.

“This is indeed a widely circulated GW legend. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether it’s true or not,” said political science professor Michael Sodaro.

The financial origins of Building C remain undisclosed, so the rumor lives on.

“The building was Building C until the Fungers gave GW the contribution that led to the naming of this building after them,” recalls political science professor Bernard Reich.

Subject: Hippo

Story: President Trachtenberg has a thing for hippopotami, so he gave a hippo statue to the University.

Explanation: President Trachtenberg acquired the hippopotamus statue while on a trip to Africa. A little intoxicated at the time, he purchased it and brought it back to his unsuspecting wife, who was not pleased. He then off-loaded the hippopotamus statue as a gift to the incoming freshmen of 1996.

Status: Myth-ish

The Real Deal: The bronze hippo statue, found on the corner of 21st and H streets in front of Lisner Auditorium, was in fact a gift from President Trachtenberg in 1996 to the graduating class of 2000. Since then, the GW community has developed a fondness for the hippopotamus, which is now the unofficial mascot.

“(Trachtenberg) found the statue in an art shop in New Port, Rhode Island,” Nehmer said – not in Africa, and not under the influence.

The significance of the hippopotamus has more to do with President George Washington than President Trachtenberg. According to a University press release from August 30, 1996, the hippopotamus has a deeply rooted legend in the District.

It reads: “Newly created legend has it that the mighty and then un-polluted Potomac was, in Washington’s time, home to these wondrous beasts, which also are called ‘river horses.'”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.