Interactive and Irreverent Traditions at Penn’s Campus Monuments

Kai Burgmann, C’22

My first walk through Penn is a familiar story among Penn students, as well as those simply touring the campus—I walked down Locust Walk, and along the way, I took a picture with the famous statue of Benjamin Franklin on a bench. This monument, presented to the University in 1987 by the Class of 1962, shows a life-sized bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin reading the Pennsylvania Gazette, sitting next to a pigeon [1]. However, as Penn students will also tell you, this site is home to a notorious tradition and history of pranks—particularly urinating on this statue.

Ben on a Bench
Figure 1: Ben on a Bench, photo by Caitlin Martin © 2014 for the Association for Public Art.

A similar irreverent tradition exists for one other landmark monument on Penn’s campus—The Button, located on Locust Walk outside of the Van Pelt Library. Each of these monuments—defining features of Penn’s campus —have their own unique traditions, urban legends, and aspects of interactivity. These monuments and their associated traditions diverge from normal college monuments with aspects of interactivity due to their irreverence; while most students are aware of these traditions, few have participated. Together, these two landmarks serve as a case study for interactive and irreverent traditions in the broader collegiate monument landscape.

Penn Map
Figure 2: A map of Penn with three dots denoting the aforementioned monuments. Red: The Compass. Purple: Ben on a Bench. Orange: The Button. 

The Statue

To start with Ben on a Bench, it is important to have a grasp on the specific history of this sculpture. As mentioned previously, the statue Benjamin Franklin (on a bench) was commissioned and installed in 1987 in honor of the class’s 25th reunion and was designed by artist George Lundeen [2]. George Lundeen, born in Nebraska, educated in Florence, and now practicing in Colorado, is an active and well-known sculptor who has produced various statues and monuments for schools throughout the nation [3]. The date information can also be found on the only plaque on the statue, inscribed with the following text: “Benjamin Franklin on Campus / Created For and Given by the Class of 1962.” The nickname “Ben on a Bench” was later given to the statue by University Curators and was used as early as 1992 [4]. The location of the statue situates it in quite possibly the most central location on Penn’s campus, located right next to the famous Locust Walk’s Compass, which students throughout campus use as a central meeting place.

Ben on Bench Detail
Figure 3: Ben on a Bench detail, photo by Alexandra Fleischman, Daily Pennsylvanian.

The Tradition (1)

There is not much written about the tradition of students urinating on Ben on a Bench. I, like most students, first heard of the tradition early into my freshman semester in the context of describing someone who had recently partook in the subversive tradition, thus showing immediately showing me its continuity.

An article published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s largest student newspaper, titled “Golden Tradition” and published in November of 2014, describes the tradition: “The Benjamin Franklin statue […] is subject to one of Penn’s oldest and messiest traditions—public urination” [5]. It further describes how this practice has resulted in “frequent upkeep,” with reportedly someone constantly on “call” for “whenever these sorts of incidents occur.” In this 2014 Fall semester at Penn, six students were caught committing this act, thus likely being the spark for the headline’s appearances. A similar follow-up article was published in PhillyMag which describes the tradition as “more recent”: “Here’s one that’s less than 30 years old: It’s tradition to pee on the statue of Benjamin Franklin” [6].

Student Reactions

The only public reaction to this tradition came in 2013, when Stefan Ivanovski, a student at Penn, came across someone urinating on the statue on a Saturday night. Disgusted by the act, Ivanovski immediately called public safety to report the incident. In an op-ed published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, Ivanovski later described how he was upset not just by the unhygienic nature of the act, but more so because of his admiration for Benjamin Franklin and his disapproval of the disrespect towards the “legacy” of one of his “role models”: “I felt disgusted that somebody would show disrespect to Benjamin Franklin and everything he embodies” [7].

However, those committing the act, as they appeared to Ivanovski, seemed to have a completely different perspective about the tradition. Ivanovski writes, “his friend was checking his phone, waiting for him as if nothing unusual was happening. When I asked him what he was doing, he just told me to ‘shake it off,’ and he continued about his business.”

Because of the lack of previous data, in order to investigate this tradition further, I interviewed a Penn student who has also participated in this activity.

In what context did you participate in this tradition?

Anonymous: It was on a weekend in Freshman Year. I had just left a party at a fraternity house at maybe 2 AM, and on my way back home with some friends, one friend mentioned that that was a common tradition. Thinking it would be funny, I quickly went over and peed.

Do you have any reflection on the incident?

Anonymous: None. Honestly, it was sort of a spur of the moment decision.

Do you know anyone else who has engaged in this tradition? If so, what were their experiences like?

Anonymous: Well I have a couple friends who peed on the statue with me. Besides that, I have heard some stories here and there, but I don’t actually know anyone else who I am sure has done it.

Would you do it again?

Anonymous: Maybe… it wasn’t really that big of a deal and I never think about it, but hey, if I am drunk and walking through campus some night, why not?

In the process of finding this interviewee, it became clear to me that while this tradition was common in terms of knowledge, very few students participated in it. It took me days to find someone who had actually urinated on the statue, and while everyone would say they “heard of a friend” who did it, very few of these stories led to a concrete name or recollection. Clearly, the popularity of this tradition is largely in word of mouth.

The Button

The Button or Split Button sits in front of the The Charles Patterson Van Pelt Library, also on Locust Walk. Pictured below, it resembles an oversized cracked button. It was designed by Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg in 1981, installed in 1982, and is made of aluminum.

Interestingly, when it was first installed, The Button “evoked a wide range of responses,” according to a 1982 Daily Pennsylvanian article. Nevertheless, even back then, students agreed that it immediately had become a “major campus landmark” [8].

A legend exists at Penn that The Button comes from Benjamin Franklin himself, who upon taking his seat as a statue across the Locust walkway, popped a vest button, which subsequently rolled over, came to a stop, and split into two.

Figure 4. The Button, photo by Rebecca Elias Abboud.

The Tradition (2)

The tradition, or maybe even urban legend, is that students engage in sexual activity under the button. In a September 2000 Daily Pennsylvanian article, “Get[ting] laid under the Button” is challenge 1 under ‘Freshman challenges: making sure you fit in and stick out’” [9]. However, the tradition is much older than this. In another Daily Pennsylvanian article from 1998, “sex under the button” is considered “out” of fashion, thus showing how ingrained in Penn tradition it had already become [10]. Unlike the irreverence associated with the Bench, this tradition personally seems much more based in folklore, with few known or confirmed cases. This is likely because the tradition associated with this monument is far riskier and socially damaging. Either through lack of admittance or lack of popularity, I was unable to find an interview with someone who had partaken in this tradition.

Figure 5. Daily Pennsylvanian Excerpt, see “sex under the button” as “out.”

In 2015, an article titled “Penn Freshmen Reluctant to Have Sex Under the Button” by Charlotte Coran features interviews with several Penn students, who commented on the tradition. “One of the, like, to do lists before you graduate is to have sex under the Button,” said David Futeran, an at the time of publication 18 year old Penn student. “People have sex under it,” he reported matter-of-factly [11].

In fact, the leading satire publication by Penn students, is named “under the button” in reference to this tradition.

Figure 5. “Under the Button” logo.

Key Findings

1. Monuments on College campuses can intersect with tradition, interaction, and irreverence.

2. Traditions related to monuments have little to do with the monument’s intention.

3. These traditions can change the perception and meaning of these monuments.

Key Finding 1

It is clear to any Penn student that the school is filled with weird traditions. From biting peoples Styrofoam hats on Hey Day, to throwing Toast on the field of football games, the school’s culture is filled with bizarre traditions [12]. This pattern quickly extends to the monuments of Penn, many of which have unique traditions associated with them.

Yet, this is not necessarily specific to Penn. Using Penn as a case study for society at large, there are many monuments which have associated traditions: interactive monuments.

A classic case is the Wishing Well, where people have long thrown coins to the bottom of wells in the hopes of granting a dream of theirs. The same is true with public fountains, and even monumental fountains. If there is water in it, people will throw their change. Even classic equestrian statues are prone to tradition. Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington Statue is always seen with a traffic cone on its head. This statue’s tradition, similar to Penn’s interactive monuments, has no clear start date [13].

Duke of Wellington Statue
Figure 6. Duke Of Wellington Statue At GoMA | © Tony Webster/Flickr

However, college monuments seem to diverge from this classical monument landscape; traditions associated with monuments can take irreverent forms. This is especially true, according to literature dedicated to this topic, in schools where sports are culturally important to students. A book on College Sports traditions by Stan Beck and Jack Wilkinson documents hundreds of these traditions, often irreverent in nature, in colleges and universities around the nation. While not all of them are associated with a specific monument, many are. Traditions involving nudity are commonplace, or in the case of students at Carleton College, even the stealing of a monument on campus: a bust of Friedrich Schiller [14].

Key Finding 2

Initially, I was convinced that the tradition to urinate on Ben on a Bench was born out of some practice to deface the statue. Perhaps people were defacing the statue as a reaction to the founders of the Nation. Perhaps people were defacing Penn as an institution. Similar to the recent Black Lives Matter protests against Confederate monuments occurring across the United States, and the resulting defacing of these monuments, I assumed that the Ben on a Bench was along this similar line.

However, the two are in fact radically different. The presence of an interactive tradition differentiates the two. These interactive traditions, like the one found at Ben on a Bench and The Button, and similar monuments throughout college campuses, show a commonality: these traditions have very little to do with the monuments themselves. After the interview conducted with someone who has partaken in this interactive tradition, students conform to these traditions for no real reason beyond conformity, and often humor. An article published in the New York Times in 1923, titled “Psychology and Tradition Play Parts in the Occasional Collegiate Outbursts,” helps show that traditions giving rise to random acts of irreverence is not uncommon or new: “The class of 1933 must riot because the classes of 1923, 1903 and 1893 did the same thing,” [15]. Thus, it is important to not mistake monuments with defacing interactive traditions for monuments with interaction because of an event, as was the case with the Confederate monuments, or any other kind of interactivity.

Figure 7. Defaced statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, VA, 2020. Vivien Killilea/Getty Images.

Key Finding 3

Despite these interactive and irreverent traditions having little to do with the monuments’ purposes and intentions, they often fundamentally change the way people perceive these monuments. Ben on a Bench is not perceived the same as it was likely intended. Frequently, Penn students can be seen laughing when coming across the monument, now showing that it has an element of humor to its character. The same is true with The Button. It is hard to think of The Button outside of the phrase “under the button” due to its incredible cultural burrowing. These monuments have now been transformed into staples of Penn’s culture, and thus memories—it has increased its weight as a monument.

However, it is also important to recognize the disconnect between those aware of these interactive and irreverent traditions and those not. As the story from Ivanovski’s point of view shows, people may misinterpret, or ascribe, their own meanings to the interactive tradition. Thus, these types of monuments can create fundamental differences between the perceptions of the monument from those participating in the interactive tradition, compared to those who do not.

In short: Interactive and irreverent traditions create memories stored within monuments.



[1] “Ben on the Bench, 1987,” Museum Without Walls:

[2] “Benjamin Franklin (on a bench) (1987)”:

[3] “George Lundeen—Biography,” Lundeen Sculpture: george/.

[4] Joe Li and Jessica Washington, “Golden Tradition,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 6 November 2014:; Daily  Pennsylvanian, 15 May 1992:

[5] Li and Washington, “Golden Tradition.”

[6] Dan McQuade, “Six People Have Been Caught Urinating On A Ben Franklin Statue This Semester,” Philly Magazine, 7 November 2014, franklin-statue-urinate-pee-penn/.

[7] Stefan Ivanovski, “Legacy Deserves Respect,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 29 September 2013:

[8] Daily Pennsylvanian, 3 December 1982:——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-+Mary+Ellen+Crowley+split+reaction——.

[9] Daily Pennsylvanian, 14 September 2000:——en-20–1–txt-txIN-%22under+the+button%22——.

[10] Daily Pennsylvanian, 17 September 1998:——-en-20–1–txt- txIN-the+author+had+surgery+and+didn%27t+get+out+edition——.

[11] Charlotte Coran, “Penn Freshmen Reluctant to Have Sex Under the Button,” 2 September 2015: reluctant-to-have-sex-under-the-button-e9cc8d055672.

[12] Kira Horowitz, “Throwing Toast and Biting Hats: A Breakdown of Penn’s Traditions,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 20 August 2018: student-issue-penn-upenn-traditions-toast-scream-glee-freshmen-philadelphia.

[13] Tori Chalmers, “How Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington Statue Got Its Traffic Cone,” Culture Trip, 9 February 2017: kingdom/scotland/articles/how-glasgows-duke-of-wellington-statue-got-its-traffic-cone/.

[14] Stan Beck and Jack Wilkinson, College Sports Traditions: Picking Up Butch, Silent Night, and Hundreds of Others (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013).

[15] “Springs of Student Rioting,” New York Times, 1 February 1931.