The Origin of the Split Button: Separating Fact From Fiction

By: Nina McManus, W’21, Work Study Student, Sweeten Alumni House 

Constructed in 1981 by Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg, the “Split Button” is seated in front of Van Pelt Library. The aluminum sculpture weighs 5,000 lbs. and is sixteen feet in diameter. The total cost of the sculpture, including transportation and installation, was $100,000. The funds were generated by the University, private donors and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It has become one of the most popular landmarks on Penn’s campus and is a common meeting point for students. However, the sculpture has not always been so beloved.  

At the time of its creation, there was much controversy surrounding it. At the unveiling, the Button created controversy on campus, with critics calling it “a poor addition to College Green.” Students felt that the sculpture was intrusive and out of place with its surroundings. Others couldn’t find the significance of the button and where it was placed. Today, however, it serves as a landmark and a focal point of Penn’s campus. 

There is also a popular myth surrounding the Button. It is said that when Ben Franklin sat down in his chair atop the statue in front of College Green, his button popped off his vest, rolled away, and split in two where it landed in front of Van Pelt Library. However, Oldenburg, the sculptor’s creator, gave an interview to The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 9, 1981, in which he said that the crack in the button represents the Schuylkill River and it divides the button into four regions: a nod to William Penn’s original design of Philadelphia as centering around four symmetrically placed parks. Whichever interpretation you prefer, the Button is an important part of Penn’s campus culture. 



The Split Button after its 2017 restoration. Photo: Rebecca Elias Abboud. 



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