Sal Romero
Insulation installer Sal Romero uses a headlamp to illuminate his work in the legendary UCI tunnels beneath Ring Mall. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Heard about the secret tunnels that crisscross beneath the UC Irvine campus? Or the “real” reason Aldrich Park is hilly?

Like countless other universities around the world, UCI has its own distinctive legends and lore that have emerged to shed light on campus mysteries.

“People tell legends because they are a way of explaining things that are either a little frightening or out of their control,” said Carol Burke, UCI folklore expert and religious studies director.

Campus legends – whether frightening or just plain funny – ought to be more than a footnote to academic life.

Following is a crash course from historians and experts at UCI Libraries on five popular and persistent tales.

Underground tunnels

The legend: A subterranean tunnel system was built beneath Ring Mall as an escape route for faculty and an entry point for the National Guard in case of student protests.
The truth: Tunnels really do exist underneath the campus, but their purpose is far more practical. They house an intricate system of heating and cooling pipes as well as electric, phone and data wires. The underground tunnel concept is not unique to UCI. Other universities such as UCLA, Stanford and Johns Hopkins also have them – each with their own accompanying legends.

Recessed windows

The legend: William Pereira, the architect who designed UCI’s original buildings, intentionally planned them so unruly agitators wouldn’t be able to scale the buildings easily. The buildings’ distinct windows were recessed in such a way that bystanders below would be protected from falling glass in case the windows were broken during a riot.
The truth: Pereira designed UCI’s original buildings in the Brutalist style, a popular architectural style in the 1950s-1970s that emphasized repetitive, geometric forms. UC San Diego’s Geisel Library – also designed by Pereira in the 1960s – is a famous example of this style. A practical issue with the “broken windows” theory is that the outside alcoves aren’t actually deep enough to prevent broken glass from falling below.

Clark Kerr’s napkin

The legend: Clark Kerr, UC president when UCI opened, first conceived the campus’s concentric layout while scribbling notes on a napkin.
The truth: There is some truth to this one. In fact, in a conversation with William Pereira and Daniel Aldrich, UCI’s founding chancellor, Kerr really did draw a circle with the names of disciplines around it. This simple diagram resulted in an early version of the campus design that would later evolve into Ring Mall. So, the napkin story is real, but where is the actual napkin now? There’s the mystery. Neither UCI nor UC Berkeley, where Kerr served as chancellor before being appointed UC president in 1958, have located the fabled napkin in their collections. Kerr died in 2003 at the age of 92.

Aldrich Park

The legend: Aldrich Park was designed with hills to discourage protests and demonstrations, the strategy being that there wouldn’t be enough flat ground for large groups to assemble.
The truth: This legend is perhaps another product of UCI’s opening during the student activist days of the sixties. Originally called “Campus Park” before it was renamed for UCI’s first chancellor in 1984, it was designed to create a peaceful urban environment – not to limit student free speech. Coincidentally Kerr, who helped conceive of the campus’ original design, persuaded the UC Regents in 1966 to allow political activities and demonstrations on campus despite escalating confrontations at UC Berkeley. The move was unpopular with the conservative leadership of the UC Regents as well as newly elected Gov. Ronald Reagan, and it cost Kerr his presidency in 1967. Contrary to the legend, the park provides an ideal location for large groups to gather for special events. UCI’s commencement ceremonies, annual open house and occasional concert series have drawn crowds of up to 20,000.

Science (fiction) Library?

The legend: The UCI Science Library looks curiously similar to Starship Enterprise and could be an homage to the famous “Star Trek” sci-fi franchise.
The truth: The Science Library was designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford and was completed two years after Stirling’s death in 1992. Stirling, one of the most influential architects of the second half of the 20th century, is known for his ability to draw inspiration from a wide range of styles, including classical, Baroque and modern. Is “Star Trek” also on that list? Extremely doubtful, though as with any artistic work, it’s open to interpretation. Compare the two for yourself: the UCI Science Library (first-floor blueprint) and the USS Enterprise.