The Block U:
Letter on a Hill
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The Salt Lake City skyline features a small huddle of skyscrapers, the white globe of the capital building, and the Mormon Temple’s ivory spires against the backdrop of the fir-lined Wasatch range. Somewhere between the urban and alpine, in the foothills above the University of Utah campus, sits a giant concrete “U,” one of the first hillside letters in the country.
While driving home one day in 2005, University of Utah Class of 1956 alum Sue Christensen noticed a bush growing out of a crack in the U. She immediately phoned then University president Michael Young and said, “This will not do.” This day marked the beginning of what would become a massive restoration of the U.
Today, a hill branded with a letter is nothing novel. Take a road trip out West and you’ll find letters littering hills throughout the region. From afar, hillside letters almost seem like natural features of the landscape, which, of course, they are not. Aside from being obviously artificial installations, no real consensus exists on how to classify them. After the U was constructed in 1909, the yearbook declared the U “an emblem of loyalty to the whole school.”
Etched in lime upon Mount Van Cott, the U became the first hillside letter in Utah and the second in the nation. It was beat out by only a matter of months by a C overlooking the University of California, Berkeley. “The letter on the mountain is a subject without a literature,” wrote the late professor of geography James J. Parsons at the University of California, Berkeley in 1988. “However, for travelers in the arid West the letters are anchors to the eye, adding diversity and interest to the natural beauty of the landscape.” While Professor Parsons acknowledged that perhaps not everyone feels so warmly toward hillside letters, he insisted that they contribute to the “sense of place” out West.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, hundreds of hillside letters appeared across Western hills throughout the course of the 20th century. While a precise count doesn’t exist, we do know there are at least 400. Over time, new letters appear while others succumb to environmental erosion and neglect.
The day after Christensen had noticed the letter’s sorry state, President Young, at her urging, commissioned the removal of bushes growing around the letter. By the summer of 2006, she had exceeded her fundraising goal by a wide margin, drumming up $460,000 to restore the letter and an extra $163,000 for scholarships to boot. With plenty of money in hand, Christensen instructed the contractors to build something that would last: “I don’t want a bunch of rocks scattered around. I want it solid.” By fall, a new, much sturdier U had come into existence.
But not everyone cheers the new U. Critics lament its impact upon open space and viewsheds. With climate change and a human-driven mass extinction underway, do hillside letters deserve a spot on the podium of environmental issues to worry about? Ultimately, the U marks the hill and the larger landscape as an extension of the university and city below—a mode of claiming. In this way, the letter is a mark tied up in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, of purported discovery and territorial kismet.
From where comes this instinct to mark—and especially, the Western compulsion to brand land? French philosopher Michel Serres argues that we mark because of a desire to claim land and resources. This instinct is not just human, it’s animal, Serres insists—as primal as “piss on the edge of [the tiger’s] lair.” Thus, our lot grows grander, bolstered by the addition of claimed terrain, resources, and objects. Instinct or not, some humans create subtler marks than others. Indigenous people of the West, for example, have marked the landscape by mentally embedding it with morals and spirituality. Compared to a landscape charged with ancient knowledge, a giant concrete letter on a hill above a street called “Tomahawk” seems the opposite of wisdom.
The Block U has been called a monument, a mascot, and a sign, among other classifications. Regardless of what it is, a more relevant question is whether we’ll continue to preserve this so-called monument. Ninety-four percent of the 17 underclassmen I surveyed about the U believe it is worth maintaining. But when tagged with the price of “several hundred thousand dollars,” only 24% felt a restoration was justified. As a new mother, I am relatively ambivalent about the U and its future; larger concerns about the habitability of the American Southwest—not to mention the planet—plague me far more than a branded hillside. Opposition to the hillside letter seems rooted in an outdated approach to environmentalism—one founded in the myth of a people-less nature. It’s upstaged by more critical environmental issues like climate change. On the other hand, the U is an artifact of humanity’s anthropocentric streak that has gotten us into our environmental mess. Indeed, the slow erosion of the U and its hill may ultimately be the least of our concerns here in the second driest state.
~ Maya Silver (Spring 2018)
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For further reading:
Corning, Evelyn. Hillside Letters A to Z. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2007.
Lafazan, Alison. “The ‘U’ on the Mountain.” Utah Stories. December 30, 2017. utahstories.com.
Parsons, James J. “Hillside Letters in the Western Landscape.” Landscape 30, no. 1 (1988).
Serres, Michel. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press, 2010.
University of Utah. “Donors Come Through for Block U.” The University of Utah News Center. June 30, 2006. archive.unews.utah.edu.