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The twin sphinges of UR

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The tunnel system under the University of Rochester's quad has certain tomb-like qualities: low ceilings, wheezing steam pipes, bad air, strange sayings scrawled on the walls. Get lost in this dismal maze and you can easily imagine you're in some second-rate Egyptian burial complex.

            What better to stand guard over one of the main entrances than a pair of carved stone sphinges (the preferred plural for those in the know)? The sphinx on the left is in good shape. The one of the right (the evil twin?) has suffered much from acid rain and frat-boy pranks. Erosion has taken its toll. In this case, it's not from raging Sahara winds, but sandblasting to remove vandals' paint. Still, the sphinges make a compelling combination, crouching between Morey and Lattimore Halls on the Lower Quad level.

            At first glance they might seem a piece of ancient history. But they say more about Victorian America than about the land of the Pharaohs. Donated by Hiram Sibley in 1874, they served as emblems of solid success and reverence for some mythical past. As a weird amalgam of female reproductive anatomy, ancient lore, and leonine flesh, the sphinges are a perfect symbol for the unconscious impulses working in the middle-class Victorian mind.

            They kept watch for 75 years in front of Sibley Hall, on the old UR campus near the Memorial Art Gallery. Back then, they faced each other before the crypto-Egyptian entryway, fixing each other with blank, baleful gazes. The same building also was home to the so-called Meliora Maidens, who now stand dissolving into beautiful abstraction near Rush Rhees Library.

            Men first attended class on the River Campus in 1930. For decades, women were segregated on the old Prince Street Campus. Not coincidentally, the sphinges came to their present location when women were finally allowed there in 1955.

            Now, the statues face outward, keeping silent watch over Frisbee-tossing, beer-guzzling, sun-bathing, and other undergraduate courses of study. But in quiet times --- drizzly sunset or subtle dawn --- the sphinges have a nearly luminous quality. They are white, pure white, as though the skin had been removed and the mystical inner flesh revealed.

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