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Community gathers for Brown’s birthday bash

After three years of planning, U. launches anniversary festivities with fireworks

“It’s like magic, right?” Eve Ornstedt, executive director for the Office of the 250th Anniversary, reflected as she stood in the center of the Main Green Friday afternoon watching years of celebration-planning unfold in front of her. The weekend’s celebrations marked the 250th anniversary of the University’s founding in March 1764, and showcased Brown’s history and its presidentially deemed standing as the “Ivy League champion of fun.”


‘A culminating moment’

Friday night’s celebration was designed to “bring people together” in a “culminating moment,” Ornstedt said.

In her opening remarks, President Christina Paxson welcomed thousands of attendees to “a birthday celebration worthy of its 250 years,” adding that she has “no doubt” Brown’s history will stretch well into the future.

Paxson’s remarks were followed by a 250-syllable prayer by University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson,  and addresses by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., Chancellor Thomas  Tisch ’76 and Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I.

Members of the student group “Word!” also performed a spoken word poem highlighting significant events in the University’s history, including Brown’s merger with Pembroke College, student protests in the 1960s and a veiled reference to last October’s canceled lecture by former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, which they cited as an example of students promoting racial equity.

“Two hundred fifty years later, Brown students still challenge the status quo,” they said.

Throughout the remarks, “people just kept streaming in,” said Wendy Strothman ’72, tri-chair of the steering committee of the 250th anniversary.

Despite the large crowd, wide swaths of attendees were disappointed with the sound quality of the event, unable to hear anything that took place on stage.


30 square feet of cake

In a highly anticipated moment of the night, Paxson cut the first slice of the approximately 650-pound cake — a 3 percent model of University Hall.

The 1,400-piece cake took 400 man hours and more than 100 pounds of marshmallow fondant to complete. The entire cake was built around an intersteel structure to ensure it did not bend with transportation, said Tyler Oakleaf, co-owner of Oakleaf Cakes.

Oakleaf would not divulge the cake’s price tag, but the company website prices custom cakes at $3 per serving and $75 per hour of decorating. Following such a pricing scheme and calculating all 400 man hours as “decorating,” the University Hall cake would have cost approximately $34,200, though Marisa Quinn, vice president of public affairs and University relations, wrote in an email to The Herald that the cake cost “far less” than that.

At $3 each, the cupcakes likely added $3,600 to the bill.

The University Hall portion was 30 square feet and paired with a front lawn featuring the Van Wickle Gates, which had been constructed entirely from piping.

Not only was the cake one of the biggest projects the company has ever undertaken, but it was also one of the largest sculptured cakes ever made, Oakleaf said. “You can count sculptured cakes this big on one hand. … Cakes don’t usually feed 1,000 plus,” Oakleaf said.

The cake was layered such that all pieces would be equally sized.

The journey toward this sugary monument was a typically short one. “Cake is an extreme art because it’s timed. Once it comes out of the oven you’re fighting the clock before it gets dry and loses taste,” Oakleaf said. The bakers put the cake in the oven five days before the event, quickly assembling it using buttercream filling as glue.

To expedite decoration, the workers “rolled out and decorated one panel with all the brickwork, and then used a silicone mold to imprint the other ones,” Oakleaf said, adding that it was fortunate University Hall is a “very symmetrical building.”

Decorators hand-sponged food coloring onto the bricks, delicately cut out each window with an x-acto knife and hand-piped icing onto the gates. For Oakleaf, the effort paid off: “It’s nice to do a cake this big because you can get all the detail, not cartoonized or brought to size.”

Surpassing Oakleaf Cakes’ previous largest creation — a life-size Stormtrooper — University Hall fits Oakleaf’s mantra that “there’s not a lot that can’t be made out of cake.”

Despite the numerous hours that went into creating the edible art, Oakleaf said “it’s a relief when it gets eaten. It means nothing else can go wrong.”

Strothman said she was pleased with how many students attended the event. Students were “both contributing and participating and hung in there to see the final piece of cake handed out.”


A task for 10 

As students buzzed about what the University Hall-shaped cake would look like and whether everyone would be able to get a slice, a team of organizers was busy working to ensure the approximately 650-pound cake arrived to campus unscathed.

Made in Boston, the cake had to be driven to campus from Hope Street in order to avoid going up College Hill and risking that the cake might slip, Strothman said.

Once the cake arrived in front of the Faunce House steps at 4:45 p.m., 10 people used four steel poles to carry the cake carefully to the top of the Faunce steps.

As the cake made its ascent, a crowd of about 100 people nervously watched, gasping at moments when it looked as though the cake might not make it to the top or was not going to fit between the poles of the tent that would cover it.

“I thought the cake was remarkable,” said Donald Hasseltine, vice president for development. “I watched them carry it up the stairs,” he said, calling that a “highlight” of the weekend.

Once the cake was in position, Oakleaf Cakes’ staff connected the front lawn piece and the building piece and brought out 1,200 accompanying cupcakes.


Starting with a bang

While the cake was being cut, the Green was illuminated as fireworks rocketed off the roof of University Hall.

Planning for the firework display began in January, a process that involved weighing safety factors due to the University’s residential location with the planners’ “vision” for how the display would look, said Gene Raynor, show producer at PyroTecnico, the company hired to implement the show.

The display aimed to be “compatible” with that vision but also “distinct,” he added.

The show featured the 250+ logo in fire on the side of University Hall facing the Green.

As the building lit up, students clapped and cheered, entranced by the vision of the University’s oldest and most symbolic building illuminated by flames.

Prior to the show, Raynor said he hoped many people would view the fireworks, a wish that was fulfilled as thousands of people filled the Green to watch the light display.

The fireworks were “distinctive,” Quinn said. “Nobody does fireworks off a19th-century building.”


From near and far

The planning for the University’s 250th anniversary celebration began at a meeting in April 2011, at which point a steering committee of 30 people and nine subcommittees were formed. In total, over 100 people were involved in organizing the weekend’s events.

From the outset, the goal was to design the weekend-long celebration to bring together “both people new to Brown as well as people from the Brown family” and to highlight “what makes this place so special right from the beginning,” Quinn said.

Quinn wrote in an email to The Herald that the committee was “mindful of keeping costs down,” noting that the weekend’s primary costs were “labor related to the weekend’s events, grants to faculty and students to develop programming, fireworks” and travel costs for speakers. The speakers did not receive honoraria, she noted.

Starting Friday afternoon, alums, students, community members and faculty members converged on the Green to celebrate Brown’s 250 years.

A celebration like this “pulls the community, the people, the multigenerational families together,” said Rula Shore ’67 P’09.

John Worsley ’56, who was the president of his class and returned to campus from his home in Lincoln, said he likes events like this because of the “blend of having current-day students with old guys like me.”

Other alums came from farther away, such as Dave Morris ’88, who came to campus from San Fransico because “you only turn 250 once.”

In his first few hours back on campus, Morris said he had already seen many old friends.

While alums said they looked forward to the celebration for different reasons, all said they came to celebrate Brown.

“I’m looking to celebrate Brown’s past and Brown’s present and Brown’s future,” said Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine William Sikov ’78.


250 years in 12 minutes

At 5 p.m., alums, students and faculty members mingled over hors d’oeuvres to watch the premiere of “The Brown Difference,” a 12-minute film about Brown’s history and what makes the University distinct.

The film opened with the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams and chronicled the establishment of the University in 1764, the creation of the New Curriculum and firsts of Brown, such as the first black and first female students to enroll.

“There was no place quite like” Brown at the time of its founding, said Gordon Wood P’86, professor of history emeritus, in the film.

Paxson reflected on ways in which Brown is still a unique place. The University attracts “unusually happy students” and “people who don’t accept things without questioning” them, Paxson said in the film.

Planning for the film began in late August last year and was spearheaded by Betsy West ’73 P’17 and Oren Jacoby ’77 P’17, both of whom are documentary filmmakers.

It was “a little daunting trying to fit 250 years into 12 minutes,” West said, but she and Jacoby were happy with the results and the contribution they were able to make to the celebration.

Jacoby said one of his favorite parts of interviewing people for the film was that, despite interviewees’ different backgrounds, “you find that they are like a family” and all have a similar message to share.


Months of celebration

This weekend marked only the beginning of the 250th anniversary celebrations, Quinn said. They will continue at both the 2014 and 2015 commencements, as well as over the 2014 fall weekend.

The celebration is good “to remind people that (Brown) was an important part of their life,” said Nicky McCatty ’88 of Brookline, Mass.

“I think it’s important for any institution … to have tradition and pomp and circumstance,” said John Hare ’83 P’12 P’14 P’17. “It’s a human bonding experience.”

Organizers hope to bring as many people as possible to campus to continue to “harken back to our founding” and look at “what’s in the DNA of Brown,” Quinn said.


- With additional reporting by Caroline Kelly, Jillian Lanney and Drew Williams


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