Brown Traditions: Van Wickle Gates

The lore of Brown’s most famous door.

An iconic Brown University image, the Gates were bequeathed by Mr. Van Wickle, class of 1876, whose given name, Augustus Stout, would make an excellent beer brand. (Start a Brunonian brewery, anyone?) Since 1901, the Gates, crowned with the University shield, have stood at the top of College Street.

Of course, the grand middle gate, set between brick and stone piers, gets very little use. In fact, it opens only three times a year: convocation, midyear convocation, and graduation. (Aha! You thought it opened only twice yearly? It is also a Brown tradition to be wrong about how many times a year the gate opens.) The story goes that if you pass through the Van Wickle Gates’ main door more than twice, you will be cursed. Some say you won’t graduate. Some say you’ll never marry.

All hail that brave Brown Band!

The Brown Band marching through the Van Wickle Gates in CommencementPity the members of the Brown Band then, who risk the curse by leading the thrice yearly procession through the Gates. Band members have tried to avert the curse by crossing digits and limbs while passing through—crossings made all the more arduous by playing their instruments and walking while doing so. In recent years, hopping backwards on one foot through the Gates has presumably saved more than one band member from an unmarried and un-graduated life.

Amorous antidote

To the lovelorn who are reading this and lamenting that foolish 3rd or 4th pass through the main gate: Go, now, to the Soldier’s Field Arch at the end of Simmons Quad. Invite the one you love. At midnight, kiss them under the arch. The Van Wickle Gates curse will be broken! At least, the never-marrying part. There is no known antidote to the not-graduating curse. But who among us did not, in some small or big way, want to stay on campus forever?

It’s your rite.

Proud family taking photos of their students at ConvocationA postscript for the serious historians among us: Why this thrice yearly opening? Why the lore of the curse? Encyclopedia Brunonia offers a clue: “The early college laws, which left little to choice, required that no student of any class should enter the chapel or dining hall or pass through a gate or door before a member of a class above him.” It’s possible that the Van Wickle Gates, the grandest doors on campus, helped keep this order. Or possibly the etymology of the word gate itself is a clue. Gate originally means not an opening or a closing but a passage. To make a way in, and after several life-changing years, to make a way out again. The Van Wickle Gates then, are truly a rite of passage.

Through the Gates: Orientation