The Tallest Building at The University of Southern California

“Rufus B. Von KleinSmid was one of go ahead keep laughing president of USC for a number of years. His only goal in being president of the University was to have the tallest building on campus and because of that [collector interrupts: “That was his only goal?”] his only goal was to have the tallest building on campus. And so he built VKC, which stands for the Von KleinSmid Center, and the bell tower was erected and for a number of years it was the tallest point on campus. Later on, they built WPH, White Phillips Hall, which stands right next to it, and it wasn’t going to be taller than the bell tower, originally. But. They decided to build up even more, and if you look up at WPH there’s actually an open space up there, that’s about thirty feet of nothing. There is no classrooms, no anything, it’s just to make the building taller than it actually is. Umm, and, Rufus B. Von KleinSmid died. But his wife, Emma Von KleinSmid, uhh wanted to make sure that his legacy lived on. So, she went to a garage sale and bought the globe that now stands on top of VKC for something in the ball park of fifty cents and uh put it on top of the bell tower and so now the bell tower of VKC with the globe included stands four inches taller than WPH.”

My informant first heard this story when he was training to be an Orientation Advisor at the University of Southern California after attending his first year of school there.  The Orientation Coordinator, also a student, told the story to the new group of Orientation Advisors as an example of a fun anecdote to tell when giving a tour of the campus. As my informant said, the walk between the VKC building and the WPH building is long, and “you can only talk about those buildings for so long before you run out of things to talk about and [the informant] needed a fun story to fill the time.” As an Orientation Advisor, he passed the story along to incoming students throughout the summer as he gave tours of the school. He has since become an Orientation Coordinator, and tells the story to the Orientation Advisors that he trains.  He told the story to me during a training session for another on-campus job, in a program devoted to “fun facts” about the University of Southern California.

My informant believes that the legend might reflect an outdated stereotype of the University of Southern California as “The University of Spoiled Children.” He finds the story compelling because it exemplifies a “prankster attitude” based on doing something extravagantly expensive simply because one can. As he points out, there is a strange empty space at the top of the WPH building that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, would have cost the University a large amount of money unnecessarily.  He sees building this extra floor on WPH and Mrs. Von KleinSmid’s alleged addition of the globe on top of the VKC building as a demonstration of the University’s old sense of entitlement: if the building can be made taller, make it taller, no matter the price.

My informant has heard variations of the story that point to a similar interpretation. These versions usually differ from his own in how much the globe cost Mrs. Von KleinSmid, where she found the globe, how much taller the globe makes VKC than WPH, and how the empty space in WPH is used (one memorable version says that there’s an unused ballroom on the top floor). Each of these variations focuses on the absurdity of the idea that one building needs to be the tallest on campus. Performers of this legend seem consciously to make fun of the story and to laugh at the stereotype that it portrays. I agree with my informant in that this legend reflects a stereotype that the University of Southern California has more money than it knows what to do with and is focused on presentation rather than serious scholarship. I would only add that students’ performance of this legend suggests an awareness of the stereotype and a desire to trivialize it.