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The many chimneys atop Folwell Hall.

They're not blowing smoke: U student tour guides will tell you about the 26 chimneys atop Folwell Hall, along with scores of other factoids regarding the Twin Cities campus.

From faux chimneys to cement teeth: U tour guides know campus forwards and backw

U tour guides know campus forwards and backwards

By Rick Moore

Published on July 17, 2004

Had I known I would learn about the 26 chimneys on one building and the Gopher ears--perceptible only to the imaginative few--on another, I would have signed up for a campus tour much earlier.

As it happened, my interest in touring the Twin Cities campus grew slowly over the last five years. It was spawned by the countless sightings of student tour guides leading their tiny flocks while walking backwards. Always backwards.

Then I would hear little snippets from passing tours--about Pillsbury Hall being made from "maroon and gold" rock indigenous to Minnesota, or about there being some function to the glass fixture atop the Civil Engineering Building. Finally, on a gorgeous July morning, I decided to tag along on an official tour from the U's admissions office and see what I could learn about the campus I frequently write about.

My tour guide was a charming theater major, delightfully bubbly and demonstrative. I'll refer to her as "Ann," since I may have neglected to tell her I would quote her liberally. Ann, too, was fond of the backwards walk and explained its rather obvious purpose--so that the participants could clearly hear her voice. It turns out that's usually not a concern with her. "I had a tour group tell me once that I was talking too loud," she said. "I think I was embarrassing them."

I learned a few other things about the U in an interesting tip sheet for tour guides titled "Interesting Facts to Thrill Visitors and Fill Those Awkward Silences." But when you have a tour guide who doubles as a theater major, awkward silences are rare and that information is unnecessary.

We were to be informed, not embarrassed, for the next hour and a half as we strode around the East Bank, backwards and forwards, reveling in the highlights (and interesting trivia) of the Twin Cities campus.

Within a block, Ann asked if anyone knew the most popular major on campus. Liberal arts? No, although that's the largest college. Business? No. "Undecided," Ann said. "That's the humor portion of our tour. Thanks."

We arrived near the center of Northrop Mall after walking through Walter Digital Library, which recently underwent a $15 million renovation "to make it look the way it used to," Ann said.

While we gazed upon the green and splendid mall, perennial home to sunbathers and students playing Frisbee, soccer, football, and now cricket (and a place for wireless Internet access), Ann pointed out other tidbits. When Northrop Auditorium was built in 1929, its capacity matched the total student population--about 4,700. While the venerable old venue still has a capacity of 4,700, the University's student population has grown tenfold to about 47,000 undergraduates and graduates.

We walked through Smith Hall, home of the chemistry department, and into one of the U's lecture auditoriums. Times have changed, Ann said, and it's not true that U students typically suffer through scores of huge lecture classes. There may be two or three classes freshman take that have larger lectures a couple days a week. But the University also offers freshman seminars (see upcoming UMNnews story on July 20), intimate classes on intriguing topics with distinguished faculty--those "who have been voted most popular, have been given the most awards, or have done cutting-edge research," Ann said. Her freshman seminar was "Women and Shakespeare." A fellow tour guide took "The Color Red," Ann said, and was studying forensic science and blood splatters one week and communism the next.

As we crossed Washington Avenue over one of the shiny new pedestrian bridges that mirror the Weisman Art Museum, I gleaned my most compelling piece of information: the front of Coffman Memorial Union was designed to look like the head of a Gopher, with the center columns as the teeth and the brick appendages on the top of either side as the ears. "Maybe," Ann suggested, "the people who see that Gopher spend too much time sunning themselves on Northrop Mall."

Coffman is also the headquarters for student groups. There are several hundred organizations for students to choose among, from political action groups to the Sweatpants Club--"a group of guys who like to hang out in their sweatpants," Ann explained. "If you can't find a student group that interests you--and I challenge you to not find a group that interests you--you can start a club with three friends and $15.... When you find people with the same interests, it makes the University feel small."

The Gopher Way, which makes the University feel warmer in the winter, was our subterranean pathway through the Academic Health Center. Then it was on to the Super Block--four residential halls that house a community of 3,000 students--for a mini tour, and back across Washington Avenue. Along the way, we learned that students can use their high school senior portrait as the picture for their U Cards (which eliminates the risk of a bad-hair day being preserved for four years) and that bike theft is the most common crime on campus. The solution for that, Ann noted, "is to buy a cheap bike and an expensive lock."

"Maybe," Ann suggested, "the people who see that Gopher spend too much time sunning themselves on Northrop Mall."

On the home stretch of the tour, we stopped in the Rec Center. "You see a lot of people come in here to try and fight the Freshman Fifteen," said Ann. Some of the students chuckled at the reference. The others--who didn't get it, but might eventually get it--should be warned that the Freshman Fifteen refers to the total pounds gained by some first-year students when the number of pizzas consumed outpaces the number of trips to the Rec Center. Intramurals are big at the U, too, Ann noted.

One of the taller buildings on campus is the Civil Engineering Building, which goes underground seven stories. That glass fixture on the top of the building houses a periscope, through which people down below can check out the weather up above.

Ackerman Hall, the home of aerospace engineering at the U, was also where the "black box" flight recorder was developed. "I know nothing about aerospace engineering; I'm not a rocket scientist," Ann confessed. "Although there are some available if you're interested." A couple of buildings away, in Lind Hall, the Writing Center is available for students interested in advice "if you get stuck after your thesis statement or need help with your grammar." They don't write your paper, said Ann; "they give it luster so you can wow your professor."

Ninety minutes after the tour commenced, we were back where it began, at the top of the ramp to Williamson Hall, next to the majestic and decorative Folwell Hall. Folwell is the chimney building, although I was previously oblivious to that fact. It was constructed in an era in which chimneys were apparently en vogue, Ann explained, and the architects decided that 26 would be an appropriate number for the building, although there is nary a working fireplace within.

I learned a few other things about the U in an interesting tip sheet for tour guides titled "Interesting Facts to Thrill Visitors and Fill Those Awkward Silences." But when you have a tour guide who doubles as a theater major, awkward silences are rare and that information is unnecessary.