Oh, Say Can You “C”?

Bold, blue and not quite legal, a grand design looms in Columbia history.

Bold, blue and not quite legal, a grand design looms in Columbia history

Four rowers apply paint to a large "C" insignia located on a cliff.

Phyllis Katz

For detractors, it is the biggest piece of graffito in New York. But for those who bleed Light Blue, it is a bold and literal proclamation, a marker of pure Columbia spirit. It’s the famed Big “C” — the huge painted initial letter of alma mater’s name, impossible not to see from the stands at Baker Field (officially, Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium) as it adorns a cliff on the Harlem River at Spuyten Duyvil.

“A monumental sign of athletic intimidation,” wrote Kevin Lotery ’05 in Spectator in 2002, “it says to all visiting teams, ‘Welcome to our house.’” Visible to decades of jocks and spectators alike, the 60 x 60-ft. blue icon, outlined in white, is so grand that you might think it’s been around since time immemorial.

Actually, the insignia has a traceable and fairly recent history, appropriately trimmed with a bit of hazy lore.

The “C” began life at the Poughkeepsie Regatta, the annual championship of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. Columbia, a founding IRA member, once had its own boathouse on “Regatta Row” at Poughkeepsie, and its crew — along with its competitors — would traditionally tag a portion of the western Hudson shore with the school letter.

Things changed, however, in 1949 when the IRA moved the regatta from Poughkeepsie to Marietta, Ohio. While the tagging reportedly continued in the new location, it wasn’t quite the same. And so in fall 1952, two senior rowers hatched a scheme.

“I kept looking at that rock and saying, ‘Boy, that spot would make a beautiful place for a Columbia ‘C,’” heavyweight stroke Donald Fagan ’53, BUS’58 recalled this past summer. “We were looking for notoriety.”

Fagan’s partner in bicolor crime was coxswain and captain Robert Prendergast ’53, who said he “painted it in my head,” down to the approximately 12-ft. width of each of its elements.

I kept looking at that rock and saying, “Boy, that spot would make a beautiful place for a Columbia ‘C.’” — Donald Fagan ’53, BUS’58

The pair began executing their masterpiece from the bottom up, making sure that the lower portion would not be obscured or degraded by the river’s periodic rise. Through the Department of Buildings and Grounds, they secured several gallons of pigment. Boathouse manager “Pop” Johnson fashioned a boatswain’s chair attached to what Fagan calls “a lifeline cable” at the top of the cliff, where the New York Central Railroad ran. He and Prendergast arrived at their canvas via a mahogany launch and took turns applying coats.

“One of us would be in the launch and raise the other up,” said Fagan. “The exciting thing was when the Circle Line came. Their wake would raise and lower the launch. So the guy in the boatswain’s chair would go up and down.”

Strictly speaking, was this whole business legal? As Prendergast remembers it, he wrote a letter to New York Central Railroad, requesting permission to execute the stunt. He received a reply in the affirmative, the authorities effectively saying, “You can paint it, but we’re not to blame.” And while their machinations attracted the police on the first day of painting, they ultimately left without confrontation. “We never heard from anyone,” Fagan said.

Prendergast and Fagan had hoped to complete their outdoor art before graduating. But the project was too ambitious; when winter set in, the duo abandoned their labors. They had managed to execute perhaps 50 percent of the “C,” namely the bottom portion and about half of the vertical leg.

“It was unfortunate,” said Prendergast, “but I figured somebody else would take over.”

He was right, but memories differ on when the final brush stroke was applied. Work was still in progress when Art Delmhorst ’60, BUS’64 rowed lightweight. But Tom Gualtieri ’65, PS’69, also on lightweight, remembers that the “C” was done by the time he arrived in 1961.

Since then, the “C” has been touched up every few years by crew members, with the exception of one major interregnum. It followed an accident, on February 23, 1976, when lightweight crewmember Steven Abbey ’78 drowned after his shell was swamped. Suddenly, safety became a serious concern.

“Somebody at the University said, ‘What about liability? What about insurance?’” said former Director of Sports Information William Steinman. “And that ended the painting.” As a result, the bold blue of the “C” dwindled to a light gray. At least one Circle Line operator reportedly told the assembled, “Like Columbia football, it’s fading fast.”

Then, in October 1985, heavyweight bow Dan Eiref SEAS’86 decided to rectify matters. He fashioned a triangle-shaped jig — essentially a wooden bench with rope on either side — “and just lowered people off the top and hoped for the best.” The ropes, Eiref said, were attached to iron bars jutting from the top of the rock face, “probably left over from when it was blasted away by the Army Corps of Engineers a century ago.”

Eiref and some compatriots secured $300 from Director of Athletics Al Paul GSAS’55 and bought 20 gallons of paint. Though Eiref himself didn’t paint — “I was too chicken to go down” — the process progressed with few mishaps over the course of three weekends.

At one point, freshman James Murphy ’88 suggested that they tag their own tag by signing the painters’ initials and the date “85.” All concerned seemed amenable. But when they saw the size of Murphy’s scrawl they slathered over it. Today, the white square is in effect a period, designating the “C” as an abbreviation.

On the whole, Eiref was satisfied with the result: “My biggest regret was buying latex paint. Oil would have lasted longer.”

Though the restoration cheered many alumni and fans, there were exceptions. A photograph of the work in progress taken by CCT then-senior editor Phyllis Katz, which adorned the back cover of the Winter 1985–86 issue, drew an outraged response from Edward R. Green ’79, SEAS’83. In a Letter to the Editor he called the enterprise an inherently dangerous “harebrained stunt.”

Today the two men responsible for starting it all, Prendergast and Fagan, still take pride in their accomplishment. “I told Bob, ‘We ought to get a brass plate and mount it there,’” Fagan said. “But I’m not as agile as I used to be.”