Lego Old Main
‘The Impossible Picnic’ at Lego Old Main now on public display in Morgan Library
story by Mark Luebker
photos by John Eisele
published Sept. 16, 2020
If you read CSU Magazine, you know Colorado State University’s first academic building – variously known as The College, the Main Building and, finally, Old Main – has been reborn in miniature, constructed entirely of plastic Lego bricks, as part of the university’s sesquicentennial celebration.
In early September, President Joyce McConnell and Doug Cloud, the Lego artist who created the replica – and who also happens to be an associate professor in CSU’s Department of English – met up in the foyer of Morgan Library where the model now is on public display for a presentation.
The original Old Main was constructed in 1878-79 and burned down in 1970. Lego Old Main, constructed in 2019-20, presents a tableau Cloud calls “The Impossible Picnic,” populated by some 60 minifigures, including 18 that represent real people from across CSU’s 150-year history.
“I discarded strict historical accuracy early on,” said Cloud, “and had people from different eras mixing and mingling. I liked the idea of a counterfactual depiction: What if all these people from our history could come together in one place and time? What if that place and time were a beautiful summer day in front of our original building?” Cloud describes it as “CSU fan fiction.”
But who to include?
“I knew I wanted a selection of CSU’s presidents, including President McConnell,” Cloud said. “For the other figures, I asked for recommendations from colleagues, then chose several individuals who had especially compelling stories – like Tom Sutherland, Amy Van Dyken, and John Mosely. I focused on trailblazers, like Libbie Coy and Grafton St. Clair Norman. It was a tiny cross-section that I hope I accurately captures the diversity of our forebears.”
Sutherland was a bagpipe-playing Scotsman and CSU professor of animal sciences for 26 years. He went on to serve as dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, where he was kidnapped by Hezbollah terrorists. He demonstrated a remarkable spirit and courage during more than six years he was held hostage.
Van Dyken is a CSU alum who became a competitive swimmer to overcome severe childhood asthma. She won six Olympic gold medals and went on to a successful career as a broadcaster. Paralyzed in a 2014 ATV accident, she created the Amy Van Dyken Foundation, working to improve quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries.
Mosley was the first African-American to play on the Colorado State University football team in the modern era and the first to letter in the sport. He also served as a bomber pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. He was a lifelong civil rights activist and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2006.
Coy was the first woman to graduate from the Agricultural College of Colorado in its first graduating class 1884 and was the first woman in the state to earn a degree from any Colorado college. She taught at the College for two years and was a tireless advocate of education throughout her life.
Norman was the first African-American to attend the early College, graduating in 1896. He served as an officer in the Spanish-American War and in World War I and had a successful career as a civil engineer in Ohio, a professor at colleges in Kentucky and Alabama, and a state insurance inspector in Alabama.
President McConnell not only is represented in the display, but as part of the event, Cloud presented the real McConnell with a duplicate of her minifigure in its own Lego vignette. Lego President Joyce has customizable heads – one with a regular face, the other masked to comply with COVID-19 campus public health guidelines.
“I thought it would be fun for her minifigure to wear a mask,” Cloud said. “Lego makes one – just one – and that part is in high demand, given our historical moment! I managed to get one and gave her a spare head without a mask so she can change it out when all of this is over.”
CSU President Joyce McConnell examines a recreation of Old Main, made of Legos, in Morgan Library. Old Main, CSU’s first academic building, was destroyed in a fire in 1970. Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photos
Along with McConnell, past CSU presidents Barton Aylesworth, Adrian Chamberlain, Tony Frank, Charles Lory, William Morgan, and Albert Yates also are represented in the display, sitting at a picnic table eating pizza.
“There are no small presidents, just Lego-sized reproductions,” said McConnell, “and it’s an honor to be immortalized in plastic among such distinguished and diverse company.”
Included in that company are a dozen other CSU historic (mini)figures. Those viewing the display can try to identify them as part of a “Featured Faces Scavenger Hunt.” Cloud says the rest of the Lego picnic attendees “could be anyone,” and hopes students will look and find someone who could be them. There’s one in a corner, apparently heading off on a backpacking trip, that he notes looks remarkably like him.
While the project is intended as fun and something that will appeal to both current Rams and to future Rams of all ages, there is a serious side to putting together a project like this as well. Cloud says showing the diversity of the Ram family, current and historical, was a challenge.
“Representing women and people of color gets tricky, I’m sorry to say, though Lego is doing better lately,” said Cloud. “They used to claim the classic yellow color of their figures was race-neutral, but that doesn’t seem plausible to me – most people read that yellow as white, in my experience.”
He says since Lego started making licensed products like Star Wars and Harry Potter, they’ve added a variety of skin tones to represent real people. So now Lego minifigures are available with some racial diversity, but they’re more expensive because those parts are harder to find.
“I don’t recall where the head in Albert Yates’ minifigure came from,” said Cloud, “but I do remember that it was really rare and cost $20 for just that one part.”
Cloud says similar difficulties exist when assembling female Lego minifigures. Initially, many were from pirate and castle sets, historical/fantasy figures that too often were stereotypical gender representations. He says contemporary female minifigures are much better: Lego versions of doctors, scientists, firefighters, and others that make it easier to depict women in more accurate and varied ways.
“Historical women are still tough,” he said. “I had to look through thousands of pictures of minifigures to cobble together plausible wardrobes for several woman at CSU in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who would have dressed conservatively.”
One bit of fun trivia: There is a figure seated among the CSU presidents who doesn’t look like any known CSU leader. “I like to think that he is a future president,” said Cloud. “And I absolutely will brag about my prescience should my prediction come to pass!”
Lego Old Main will be on display in the foyer of Morgan Library – just yards from where the cornerstone of the original Old Main is embedded in the exterior wall of the building, near the main entrance – until the end of Fall Semester.