The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday May 26th

Pit Talk

The practical beauty of the Old Well

In 1795, the Board of Trustees voted to build a well. Now, 220 years later, the Old Well is the symbol people have chosen to embody "that Carolina feeling." 

“When you see the Old Well or a scene of the Old Well, you see something familiar, something to be proud of,” said senior Darrin Benjumea, selection co-chairman of UNC Admissions Ambassadors. “Everything that UNC encompasses can kind of be wrapped up and summarized in the Old Well.” 

It’s on the acceptance letter that welcomes high school seniors to the Carolina family. It’s in the background of FDOC pictures, and engagement pictures, and graduation pictures — all the pictures, really. It’s what all the tourists ask to see. It’s what eager freshmen and hopeful, maybe even desperate, upperclassmen drink out of in hopes of achieving the elusive 4.0. It’s one of those things that lets Carolina students know they’re home.

But it wasn’t always held in such high esteem. The simple, wooden structure the Board of Trustees decided to erect back in the 1790s was primarily for utilitarian purposes. As the first water source on campus, students used it to draw water for everything from bathing to laundry, said South Moore, president of the Order of the Bell Tower. 

It wasn’t until 1897, when UNC president Edwin Alderman wanted to make the campus more beautiful, that the well began to morph into the icon that it is today, Moore said. 

In her book "Well Worth a Shindy," Sarah Brandes Madry gives the history of the Old Well. The task of designing the well was given to Eugene Lewis Harris, the University registrar and a portrait artist. The stone base, white columns and stone top were modeled after the Temple of Love at the Palace of Versailles. 

Included in Madry’s book is a 1923 letter to Mary DeBernière Graves Rees, who was a friend of Alderman’s. He recounts the history behind the Well in the letter.

“I was possessed with a great desire to add a little beauty (which, after all, is the most practical influence in the world) to the grim, austere dignity of the old Campus at Chapel Hill,” he wrote. “Looking out of my window on the first floor of the South Building, I beheld the old well squalid and ramshackled. I was determined to tear it down and put something there having beauty.”

According to the letter, the cost of building the well was about $200.

The drinking fountain was not added until 1925, when it replaced the pump. The landscaping around the well came in the 1950s, and sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, Moore estimated, the tradition of drinking from the well to get straight A's started. He said it is a more recent tradition, although he does not know how it began. 

Benjumea suggested the tradition may be related to the idea that Chapel Hill came from the earth, as Davie Poplar was the initial location for the University. He said drinking from the Old Well could be symbolic of drinking in the knowledge of the University.

No matter where it came from, however, the tradition and all that it symbolizes is enduring.

“Getting to drink from the Old Well is the sign that you’re actually at Carolina, that you’ve really made it here,” Moore said.

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