This story is a compilation of several campus legends from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, some of which go back many years. The account of West Hall's instability, and other interesting rumors about campus buildings, were collected in Not the Rensselaer Handbook, an underground document circulated around campus in the 80's. Other sources for this tale include conversations with various members of the RPI community, including "Crash" himself.
This story was originally put into written form in 1992 or '93, as near as I can tell. A few minor edits were made when it was retyped for inclusion on this web site in March of 1997.
West Hall is one of the oldest buildings still existing on the RPI campus, and had a long and colorful history even before its days as part of the college. The most relevant detail to this story is that, due to the many renovations and additions to the building, the basement of the original hospital (below the floors occupied by the Geology Department) was closed up and neglected for a few decades in the early part of the 20th century. We'll come back to this in a while.
The story really begins in the late 1920's or early 30's (no one seems to be sure which), when civil engineering classes regularly surveyed the buildings on campus as part of an examination. One class discovered an apparent discrepancy in the location of West Hall; they measured it to be seven inches further down the hill than it had been two years previously. The professor, believing this to be a mistake, gave them a lower grade because of it, but the students were adamant that they had measured it correctly, and insisted that the professor check it for himself.
The professor did go and survey the location, and found that the building was, in fact, actually eight inches further down the hill than it had been two years ago. (He didn't change the students' grades -- they'd still gotten the location wrong.) Furthermore, looking back over records from earlier years, he found that this represented a continuing trend. Apparently, the land upon which West Hall was built it not very stable -- aftre all, it's just old glacial deposits with very little solid bedrock beneath it.
Four inches per year is a rather distressing speed for a building to be moving, and it was decided that something had to be done before West Hall started blocking traffic on Eighth Street. Unfortunately, drillings in the area around West Hall found no convenient masses of rock to which the foundation might be anchored.
Undaunted by this, the intrepid engineers of RPI hit upon a workable, if comewhat unorthodox, alternate solution. Digging tunnels under what is now the West Hall parking lot, they ran cables from the foundation of West Hall to the foundation of the Sage Building's boiler room. There were four calbles in all, each approximately a foot thick and made of braided steel wire, sort of like the guy wires on telephone poles only a lot bigger.
This did the job of arresting the building's slide down the hill, as the Sage Building sits atop a good-sized hunk of slate (part of it can be seen across the street from the West Hall parking lot, where Sage Avenue cuts through it). The cables were largely forgotten for another few decades.
The next time that West Hall's cables came into the limelight was during the student protests of the late 60's. One group of radicals, who apparently had spent more time reading Marx and Lenin than Halliday and Resnick, decided that it might be a good idea to cut through the cables as a protest gesture. A moment's consideration will bring to mind the fact that the mass of West Hall is not what one would consider small by any stretch of the imagination, and the cables are under stresses of many, many tons each. The consequences of severing one of these cables would, therefore, be rather detrimental to anyone in the vicinity.
At any rate, this group of protestors made their way into the disused, all-but-forgotten sub-basement level of West Hall where the cables are anchored (see? I told you we'd come back to that) and proceeded to saw through one of the cables. Stories differ as to the results of this endeavor: some say that they were discovered before they could cut all the way through (this seems most likely; a foot-thick cable is not something you just take a couple of swipes as with the hacksaw), others claim that they did in fact sever the cable, and at least one student was seriously injured by the recoil. By all accounts, no one was killed (which is quite lucky if they did succeed in cutting through the cable), but the administration, fearful of the consequences if anyone should repeat this act of sabotage, told Physical Facilities to seal off the sub-basement level.
Accordingly, the stairways down from the Geology Department's rooms were filled with rubble and capped with concrete, and the elevator was re-wired not to go down to that level. It was thought that that would be the end of any fooling around with the cables.
RPI students are known for being original and resourceful in their thinking, though (at least when they first arrive; the Tute does its best to suppress these qualities, but a few have the fortitude to resist). A few years after the cables were sealed off, the semi-legendary William S. "Crash" Yerazunis and his friends were sitting around the Copper Slug (a nickname of the Copper Mug on 15th Street near Hutton, which has gone through several cycles of closing and re-opening since then, becoming Sluggo's and later The Mug II), contemplating the structure of West Hall and the cables over a few rounds of beer.
"Now, just what do we have here?" was the general gist of the conversation. "A bunch of cables under tension, firmly anchored at one end, and connected on the other to what we can essentially regard as a large hollow box. In other words, West Hall is the world's largest guitar!"
Knowing this, of course Crash could not resist the temptation to play it.
The first problem was getting into the sub-basement. Crash, who was known to have a flair for the dramatic (he was the same guy who blew up the Cary 2 bathroom with his nitroglycerine experiments), was seriously considering dynamiting one of the staircases clear, until an investigation of the Geology Department level revealed that the elevator shaft to the bottom level had not been filled with rubble, but simply sealed off with a piece of sheet steel. Crash's famous blowtorch made short work of this, and late one night, he and a few of his cronies descended into the sub-basement to "play the cables".
Naturally, the mechanics of the West Hall/cable system are a bit different from playing your ordinary guitar. One can't simply go and pluck the strings with a finger. What Crash planned on doing was whacking the end of one of the cables at regular intervals until he found a resonant frequency of the system. A sledgehammer would probably have been the best tool to use for this, but for obscure aesthetic reasons, a large, heavy plumber's pipe wrench was selected as the instrument of choice.
Another factor to consider was that, due to the sheer size of the system, the frequencies involved were not going to be anywhere near the range of human hearing -- something on the order of one cycle per second was their back-of-the-envelope estimate. This turned out not to be too far off. After a few experimental taps, a resonance was found at 0.909 Hz: one vibration every 1.1 seconds. The only people who could "listen" to this were a few people who'd remained on the floor above, watching the Geology Department's seismograph. Sure enough, the tape soon began to show a small but unmistakable spike at 1.1 second intervals.
Crash continued with this for a few hours, playing with frequencies and trying to get more than one cable vibrating. The seismograph duly recorded the results, and the experiment was deemed a success. Shortly before dawn, Crash and company ascended the elevator shaft, welded the steel plate back into place, and returned to the dorms with no one the wiser for their antics.
The Geology Department did have several days of confusion when they noted the evidence of a rather strange earthquake on the seismograph tape -- one which none of the other geological stations in the region had recorded. It was finally written off as an "unexplained local anomaly", although no doubt some word eventually filtered down to them.
Unfortunately for future adventurers, the elevator shaft was finally filled in, so all known points of entry to the sub-basement are now firmly sealed. There are rumors of a "secret" access door which Physical Facilities keeps closed but accessible in case of an emergency, but if this is so, no one has found it yet. Of course, one might always try Crash's original plan of high explosives...
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