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Mirror Lake’s history steeped in construction, costliness

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Construction workers are draining and cleaning the remnants of Mirror Lake, a small manmade lake on The Ohio State University’s campus, on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.

Construction workers drain and clean the remnants of Mirror Lake on Monday, Nov. 14. Credit: Jillian McVicker

A look at various news articles and records shows that the Mirror Lake that OSU knows today is a campus landmark with a long, complicated history pocketed with tragedy, transformation and tradition.

As of November 2016, chain-link fences now wall off the drained lake, the lack of water leaving stone banks dry and exposed. Construction, once again, has begun on Mirror Lake, 142 years after the first project. This latest renovation is the most sweeping, costly and transformative. After a recent spate of small changes to the lake, the university hopes to end its near-annual tinkering with a nearly $6 million, 18-month project set to extend the pond eastward and add a shallow wetland on its edges.  

“The university recognizes the iconic nature of this lake and that it is part of the heart and soul of this campus,” said OSU spokesman Chris Davey. “We are very excited about the opportunity to … restore the lake and to continue to make it into a vital part of campus life at Ohio State for decades to come.”

But the scope and timing of the restoration efforts has upset swaths of the campus community. Many view it as a convenient way for the university to effectively end, both this year and beyond, the Mirror Lake Jump, the tradition occurring during the lead up to the OSU-Michigan football game each year that came under increased scrutiny in 2015 after a student died from injuries sustained while participating.

OSU has said that although the renovations effectively accomplish the university goal of ending the jump, the purpose of the renovations is to restore the lake to its historic likeness, as well as to make the lake more sustainable.

For Taylor Hollis, a fourth-year in earth sciences, the main source of frustration is that the lake and the surrounding areas will become an 18-month-long eyesore.

The fact that it’s construction and jackhammers and all that nonsense, it kind of takes away from the aesthetic of what we’re used to,” Hollis said.

Hollis said she frequently visits the lake and uses the surrounding trees to set up her purple-and-pink hammock. The scenery set by the lake used to make this area her favorite spot, but since the draining, Hollis said it lost some of its charm.

But Davey said the renovations were going to happen sooner or later because the university has been discussing plans to renovate the lake for several years. Planning for the restoration of the lake began in November 2013, he said.

“Mirror Lake is one of the most iconic features of our campus,” he said. “We are excited that after years of careful planning, the university is embarking on this project to really restore Mirror Lake to a state that is more in keeping with its historical roots, its natural environment.”

A history of ecological woes

Mirror Lake, despite serving as the backdrop for marriage proposals, graduation photos and outdoor studying, has historically been a source of problems and subject to criticism.

In a 1959 letter to the editor published in The Lantern, a student named John Strang described a “nauseous odor sweeping up from Mirror Lake,” which he claimed “had a fragrance similar to that of a very dead cat.”

“Why is it called Mirror Lake? Did someone manage to see their reflection on that big wad of green scum?” Strang wrote. “If the lake gets any thicker, it soon may be used for a parking lot. It’s getting so you can hardly see the beer bottles and tin cans on the bottom.”

The lake’s smell had apparently been an ongoing problem on campus before Strang’s candid complaint.

In a January 1946 issue of The Lantern, there was an article on the smell of the lake, which the writer attributed to mineral deposits in the water, the accumulation of which was caused by the drilling of a well near Browning Amphitheater.

A student snaps a picture of Mirror Lake on Oct. 12. Ohio State started draining the lake on the day prior. Credit: Nick Roll | Campus Editor

A student snaps a picture of Mirror Lake on Oct. 12. Ohio State started draining the lake on the day prior. Credit: Nick Roll | Campus Editor

In his article, Dale McIntyre wrote that prior to the well being drilled, when the lake was supplied with fresh water, there was an odor typical of most lakes. The spring that supplied the lake, however, dried up by 1935. Faced with the possibility of letting the lake dry up, the university decided to sink the well. But that had its own problems.

“The well was drilled through a thick layer of limestone into a lower section of water-bearing porous rock which had deposits of sulphide,” McIntyre wrote. “When water is pumped out of the well, it contains dissolved sulphide, the same substance that causes rotten eggs to smell.”

More renovations occurred in 1977 when a fountain was installed to control the lake’s algae problem, which once again began to accumulate earlier in the decade. A large pump for the fountain was installed a year later, which sprayed water 52 feet to keep water circulating.

Despite these efforts to keep the lake functioning as a sustainable ecosystem, its problems have never been fully mitigated. This has led to several sustainability studies, including the most recent one, which occurred in 2014 after it was found that the lake was leaking and overflowing into the local sewer system.

Davey said information collected from this study was used by the university as it began to examine Mirror Lake and its future.

“The plans that we have recently announced are based on all of that work that was done in 2014 and the sustainability study was a part of that effort,” he said.

The current renovation plans, given the lake’s history, aren’t unusual. But they might be among the most transformative, and perhaps the most significant since the original bogs were cleared and the lake was created in 1874.

Custodial costs add up over the years

The lake’s existence has always been an expensive undertaking for the university.

The installation of the fountain in 1971 cost $1,000, but failed to successfully eliminate the pollution that plagued the lake.

“It was thought the fountain would help process a greater volume of water and keep … the lake fresher,” wrote Sandra Fraley in a Lantern article from February 1971. “But the lake still smells and the slime still grows.”

Additionally, according to the data provided by Johnson, the annual Mirror Lake Jump tradition cost the university a total of $448,171 from 2010 through 2015. These annual totals include costs tallied by the Office of Student Life, OSU Facilities Operations and Development, and the Department of Public Safety.

A little more than a decade later, more money was spent on lake renovations when $4,000 was used to fund labor and equipment for the annual draining, repairing and refilling of the lake in 1984.

In 2002, Mirror Lake got another facelift when the lake’s foundation and sidewalks were replaced and new benches, trash cans and concrete steps were added to “give the lake a cleaner appearance,” according to an August 2003 Lantern article. That project cost $500,000.

According to data provided by OSU spokesman Ben Johnson, a 2013-14 enhancement study of Mirror Lake cost about $28,000, and a well sustainability study completed in 2013-14 cost $56,000. The well, which was installed in 2014 to provide water for the lake, cost $141,000, and its annual maintenance costs approximately $9,000 a year.

Additionally, according to the data provided by Johnson, the annual Mirror Lake Jump tradition cost the university a total of $448,171 from 2010 through 2015. These annual totals include costs tallied by the Office of Student Life, OSU Facilities Operations and Development, and the Department of Public Safety.

The latest plan for the lake was approved by the Board of Trustees at a cost of $5.9 million, and is part of a larger project that will renovate the lake, Browning Amphitheater, Pomerene and Oxley halls and Baker Commons. The building renovations are set to cost $59 million and will be funded through auxiliary and state funds, Davey said. The updates to Browning Amphitheater are estimated to cost $800,000, he added. Together, the projects form the university’s vision of a renovated “Historic Mirror Lake District.”  

Johnson said in an email that OSU is still looking into “appropriate funding sources from university reserves” for the Mirror Lake portion of the renovations.

“Given the project’s significant focus on sustainability, options being reviewed include funds that support sustainability efforts at Ohio State,” Johnson said.

Considering its history of pricey fixes and constant maintenance work, some students hope the current changes will be the final ones.

“I feel like Mirror Lake has been under construction more than it has not been under construction in my four years … If this one is like the last one, I guess that’s fine,” said Nick Rodgers, a fourth-year in earth sciences. “But if they do this and then they’re like, ‘Oh wait, we need to do another sustainability study’ and then it just continues, that’s just a waste of money.”  

When tradition meets tragedy

The 2015 Mirror Lake Jump began on the night of Nov. 24 in unremarkable fashion. Temperatures sat a few degrees above freezing, students hollered, jumped and then shivered.

But as Tuesday night turned to Wednesday morning, tradition soon turned to tragedy.

Around 12:20 a.m., students who continued to take the plunge into the chilly water were redirected by law enforcement officers to the perimeter of the lake because of a medical emergency. The crowd watched as emergency responders rushed through the crowd with a stretcher toward a waiting ambulance.

After a medical emergency during the 2015 Mirror Lake Jump, security officers block off access to Mirror Lake with bikes and metal barricades on Nov. 25. Credit: Lantern File Photo

After a medical emergency during the 2015 Mirror Lake Jump, security officers block off access to Mirror Lake with bikes and metal barricades on Nov. 25. Credit: Lantern File Photo

It was later announced that Austin Singletary, a third-year in human nutrition, had been hurt during the jump and transported to the OSU Wexner Medical Center. The next morning, OSU announced that Singletary had died as a result of injuries sustained during the jump. A second message released from OSU shared a message with the university community stating OSU would work to end the Mirror Lake Jump.

This decision was met with a mix of reactions from students and alumni, some who agreed with the decision to stop the jump and some who decried the turning away from the tradition, which arose during the 1990s.

Luke McLelland, a fourth-year in marketing and logistics management, said he is thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in the Mirror Lake Jump, as it is a both a school and family tradition.

My older sister also went here and I remember after I jumped in the lake my freshman year, she commented on my picture and said, ‘Congratulations! You are a baptized Buckeye,’” McLelland said.

He added, though, that he understands and respects the decision to prevent future jumps.

“I definitely understand that safety and lives are most important,” he said. “We can definitely be creative enough to come up with or adapt to a new tradition for something that is so important and historical.”

The future of Mirror Lake

On Dec. 3, the Undergraduate Student Government, after an hourlong debate among members of the General Assembly, overwhelmingly passed a resolution that voiced support for ending the Mirror Lake Jump. It said USG would support the development of a new tradition “that celebrates our university while respecting the safety of its students.”

To date, a new tradition has not been created. Before the lake was drained for the current round of renovations, it seemed that students might still try to jump into the lake come November. Indeed, a tradition so enmeshed in the campus culture likely would not end because the administration and USG said it should.

“It definitely crossed my mind, like, ‘Oh, they just happened to start it a month before the Michigan game,’’ said Kalyn Swihart, a second-year in agricultural communication and public affairs. “I kind of assumed that the university would find a way to make sure there was no way that anyone was going to jump … But then again, it is like, they have also had this planned for years, so it doesn’t really matter when they start it.”

Swihart’s theory — that the university was likely planning this renovation for years but made sure it was underway before Nov. 22 — was shared by many students The Lantern interviewed for this story.

Davey, the university spokesman, nearly conceded as much.

“There’s no doubt that an advantage of the timeline which we are working on is that there will not be a jump this year,” he said. “But, remember, last year, we decided as a community together, including the student body, and it was communicated very broadly, that a jump not happen again — that we would not be having a jump this year or anytime in the future.”

As of now, it’s impossible to say what might happen in a few years when the fences are down and another Tuesday in late November rolls around, even if there is 8 to 10 feet of marshy shores. Hollis, the student who frequently sets up her hammock by the lake, said it would be “disrespectful” to jump after Singletary’s death. But that’s one voice in a campus with tens of thousands of undergraduates.

This year, there will be no jump. There are fences. People are upset.

“I was looking forward to having my picture taken, when I graduated, in front of Mirror Lake, but that’s not going to happen,” Rodgers said. “I guess I still can, but it’s going to be ugly as fuck.”

One comment

  1. Great article. I don’t think I’ve read an article this in-depth in The Lantern for a while now. Keep this up!

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