Thursday, October 15, 2009

Van Wickle Gates -- Nic and Nick

The image of the Van Wickle Gates is hard to avoid, especially before you even start attending Brown: it appears on applications, on the website, and is a central part of the tour. It stands at the end (or the beginning) of College Street, at the intersection with Prospect. It is on the edge of College Hill, where it first becomes apparent that you are situated above the rest of Providence. It's held in place by two brick columns, and on the side are two smaller gates that remain open year round. The gates are made of iron bars, adorned with flowers, pineapples, nautical symbols, and other nature-related imagery. The peak of the gate features the Brown crest and the motto "In deo speramus" (In God we trust). On College Street, the gate is illuminated by flood lights, set within the brick sidewalk. From the outside, one can see the Quiet Green and a line-up of buildings: Hope, Manning, University Hall, Slater, and Rhode Island Hall. From inside, one sees the symbolic beginning of Providence (and bits of Brown still, namely the Rock, the Hay, and List Art Center).

To a visitor or a new student, the gates can seem like a more integral part of Brown life than they really are. From outside, what one might think is Brown can be perceived, but it is really only a small glimpse. In life at Brown, it is not one of the more important spaces; instead, one must pass through another series of gates (the narrow spaces between the buildings) to reach the Main Green, which is much more of a social center. The real importance of the gates only occurs twice a year: freshmen walk through during convocation and seniors walk out upon graduation. For the remainder of the year, the gates remained closed, save for the side entrances. Legend and superstition surround the gates: if a male student walks through more than twice in his time at Brown, he won't graduate, while a female student won't get married. The gate are suggestive of a religion in its mythos and threat of punishment. By walking through them more than once, you offend the deities of higher education and its surrounding mythology.

Though these gates have become an important symbol of Brown, reproduced on stationery and on plates and in figurines, they do not loom so large in the consciousness of Brown students. This exposes the desire for monumentality and the feeling of being rooted in history. The gates are a dramatic image, and recognizable in reproduction. They help place Brown in a sort of Ivy League club, an association that conjures up images of gates and brick buildings. Thus, the gates help to build mystique or give Brown an aura, making the intangible suddenly visual.

The gates provides a physical barrier that seems unencroachable but really remains quite permeable. The suggestion of a physical exclusion is illusory in the actual openess of the campus. The community passes through them at will without having actual access to the real Brown.
The power of the Van Wickle Gates is its amorphous quality. Its importance waxes and wanes as it continues to serve as a symbol of Brown. It's monumentality makes Brown's borders physical even though this University's true borders are intangible.

Nic Mooney and Nick White

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