Beta bridgework: UVA condolence 'trompes' new greetings


Brick trompe l'oeil on Beta Bridge.

Recent Beta Bridge passersby may have been startled to see one side of Charlottesville's most mutable public billboards restored to its original brick. No paint was stripped for this job, however.


Instead, some skilled visual illusionists simply painted what the French call trompe l'oeil over countless existing paint layers, leaving only the maroon and orange "Hoos for Hokies" message so famously painted there on April 16, the day tragedy struck Virginia Tech.

Although no one has publicly taken responsibility for painting the faux brick, UVA's associate dean of students Aaron Laushway says he watched the painting and chatted with several of the students. 

"It was a very interesting and I believe representative [of UVA] group," says Laushway. "There were men and women of various origins and ages. But they weren't with any one particular group as far as I know." 

The students spent "at least a couple of hours" meticulously painting the bridge one morning, Laushway says. They told him they had carefully planned the project, even matching paint to the color of the brick walls of nearby Westminster Presbyterian church. Their artistry even mimicked the natural passages of time, with one large "crack" in particular causing passersby to do a doubletake.

"I believe they meant to send a strong message that this shouldn't be painted over anytime soon," says Laushway.

The trompe l'oeil did escape the usual daily bridge re-paintings– for an impressive two and a half weeks. But its run ended Saturday night, May 19, when a graduation greeting suddenly appeared over one side of the brick.

"David Perez 'o7" appeared in bold white letters on one side of the faux brick. New graduate Perez, 39, who spent the last four years as a part-time student and full-time employee and dad, says some friends painted the message to commemorate his accomplishments. Their project was certainly "not meant to offend," and in fact, they deliberately did not paint over the words "Hoos for Hokies," he says.

The "Hoos for Hokies" painting, which was organized by student leaders Raleigh Anne Blank, Elizabeth Chu, and Missy Jenkins, has endured for 35 days, longer than any other bridge painting that local historian Coy Barefoot can remember. Cavalier Daily archives, which include interviews with past University deans and presidents on the subject, also do not contain any record of a painting surviving as long as "Hoos for Hokies" has.

According to a 2000 report in the Cavalier Daily, "Our hearts are with you, Sigma Chi" remained unspoiled on the bridge for several weeks in October 1982, after two Sigma Chi rushees died in a car accident. They and 62 other members and rushees of the fraternity were injured when the U-Haul truck in which they were riding overturned and was struck by a car on the way to a party at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg.

And for at least one month after September 11, 2001, no one defaced patriotic messages and images painted after the terrorist attacks, according to a photograph of the bridge in the Cavalier Daily on October 11, 2001. Students painted "For America, Fight for Justice," and "United We Stand," with an American flag and an outline drawing of people holding hands, all in black and white paint.

The "Hoos for Hokies" painting resonated powerfully with many affected by the Tech tragedy, since Beta Bridge has long been a favored expression-place for the traditional UVA/ Tech rivalry. On Thursday, April 19, two days after the massacre, a local mother with a child at Virginia Tech called WINA radio show "Charlottesville-Right Now" to tell host Coy Barefoot how she had restrained her emotions through the first few days after the shooting, even as horrible details were filled in and the body count continued to rise.

But when she drove down Rugby Road that Wednesday and saw that UVA students had painted their beloved Beta Bridge orange and maroon, she said she finally "just lost it."

Will UVA students determinedly stick to tradition and eventually make "Hoos for Hokies" history? Or will they deem that tradition itself worthy of revision, and preserve a powerful message of UVA/Tech solidarity? Apparently Beta Bridge has become the unlikely litmus test for just that question.

Detail of the brick trompe l'oeil on Beta Bridge.


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