The underground tunnel system at the University of Rochester allows students to move around the campus while being protected from bad weather. One of the tunnel’s is also home to a revolving public art space.
by Chris Clemens
It’s no secret that the months between October and March can be brutal in Upstate. Single digit temperatures make going outside pretty tough to handle. That’s particularly true if you haven’t grown up in the region and acclimated to the conditions.
So, if you’re a college student who has to walk from building to building in the snowy sleet and iced up sidewalks to get to and from classes, you’d probably wish that you had attended a college where all the buildings were connected by a series of underground tunnels to shelter you from the elements.
Imagine walking across campus in the middle of a torrential downpour to try and make it to class. Or, as is typical in Rochester, a snowstorm could impede that walk, too.
University Of Rochester Tunnels
The University of Rochester isn’t a school I could afford to attend, so I hadn’t explored the campus much. But as a Rochesterian I was still really curious about the system of tunnels beneath the campus. After snagging a map from the University of Rochester’s website and reading up a little, I headed over to campus. I went to scope out the tunnels for a little exploring and to snag some photos.
I started the evening by asking for help in the library for a history of the tunnels. Then I found myself lost in the stacks somewhere on level 300m.
The process of trying to find one particular book got me thinking that I definitely don’t want to go back to college. Ultimately I was unsuccessful and never found the book.
Instead, I sent multiple tweets and emails out asking for help. I was directed to the Rare Books department in the Rush Rhees Library. They have a great historical books collection which probably would’ve had some good info. I contacted them but my calls weren’t returned.
I’ve reached out to multiple alums, staff at both the college and the hospital. I’ve gotten just about nowhere with a backstory on the tunnels.
Tunnels For Construction
I did get a message back from an architect at the university though. He explained that the tunnels were an incredible foresight on behalf of the team responsible for building the campus.
Most of the tunnels are actually just basements to their respective buildings which are connected by passageways underground.
The original purpose for the connections was to make maintenance and construction an easier endeavor all year round. Having fully accessible tunnels connecting each building meant being able to access pipes, ductwork and electric. Normally all that would be buried and they’d have to dig it up to fix or service things.
It was later that the decision to make other tunnels for the purposes of walking around the campus during bad weather a reality.
Closed Off Tunnels
According to the RocWiki page for the tunnel system, these were developed in the 1920’s when Strong Memorial Hospital opened. But that also says the tunnels under the River Campus of the University of Rochester weren’t developed until the 1930’s. Over time as the campus developed, the tunnel system was expanded to include these ‘pedestrian-purposed only’ tunnels.
At one point students could walk from Strong Memorial Hospital over to the University’s River Campus. Back then you could reach nearly all the buildings without ever stepping outside.
Since then, a few of the tunnels have been closed off to student access. They now are used only for maintenance and personnel access.
I’ve been told that the now currently closed tunnels were locked up because of sexual assault concerns. Though, I wasn’t able to ever find evidence to back that up and it appears to just be rumors.
Graffiti Tunnel At University Of Rochester
The commercial looking electrical bus ducts and sewage pipes are pretty interesting with their expanding water pipes clunking and banging. But easily the most interesting of all the University of Rochester tunnels is the one that lies below the Eastman Quad.
For decades now, it has been a student right of passage to paint on the walls. A quick Google search turns up a few stories of alums mentioning how having the chance to paint the tunnels is something everyone should do before graduating.
I’ve heard both that anyone can paint the tunnels, and that Greek clubs are the ones who are allowed to paint them. Either way, after the walls have received their share of graffiti, they are occasionally (I’ve read as often as every few weeks) painted over a solid color and students are allowed to begin again. According to a piece in the Campus Times in 2004, the tunnel has actually shrunk by 2.2 inches due to the layers of paint on the wall.
Estimates conclude that in just over 1,000 years paint layers will be so thick that the tunnel will be entirely closed.
If you’re at all interested in checking out the tunnels, you may want to get there sometime before the year 3000 just to be sure you can make it all the way through.
Though I’ve never gone to see them, RIT appears to have its very own system of tunnels as well…just in case you’re on a tunnel kick!
University Of Rochester Tunnels Gallery
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens