Prehistoric Ithaca

History & Art in Downtown Ithaca

Prehistoric Ithaca

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Ithaca Heritage


The Prehistoric Ithaca electrical box mural was painted by Kurt Piller, a local artist who has been painting billboards for commercial businesses for most of his career. He came into prominence as the billboard designer for Secret Caverns, a tourist attraction near Howe Caverns. You will find a reference to this job in the mural in the form of a mile marker. The mural was completed in 2012 as part of the city-wide 21 Boxes: An Electrical Box Mural Project funded by the City of Ithaca Public Art Commission.

The intrigue of this mural lies in the varied items that have significance for sci-fi enthusiasts, paleontologists, history buffs, and even conspiracy theorists. According to Piller, “a lot of the elements on the box are actually suggestions from people walking by.” The mural includes many sci-fi elements, including the TARDIS from Doctor Who, Sasquatch, the Jonny Quest spider, the Saber-tooth Jackalope, a Cylon warrior helmet, and the Tenth Planet, to name a few. Piller also included many elements spanning prehistory to the present day, from dinosaurs and the Easter Island Heads to rocket launches and moon landings, as well as a diverse smattering of other mystical items, such as the Devo Energy Dome and the Tarot Deck Pool.

There are, of course, many connections to Ithaca in this eclectic art piece as well. In reference to the aforementioned mile marker, there is a second one labelled “Museum of the Hollow Earth.” This is an amalgamation of Ithaca’s Museum of the Earth (located on Trumansburg Rd), and the Hollow Earth, which is a conspiracy theory that our planet is hollow and another civilization resides in its interior. The Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth was established in 2003 on Route 96 between Ithaca and Jacksonville. The Museum of the Earth “takes visitors on a journey through 4.5 billion years of history, from the Earth’s origin to the present day,” befitting the theme of this mural.

As dinosaurs are on display at the Museum of the Earth, so too is a dinosaur featured on this mural, but this dinosaur is saying a local mantra, “Eat Local.” Tompkins County boasts a great number of farms and local food industries, and the farm-to-table movement is firmly entrenched in the local dining and food scene.

Found in the Tarot Pool is the Cayuga Serpent, also known as Old Greeny. Legends of this lake monster date back to the 1800s, with many reported sightings throughout the years, even as recently as 2011. The Ithaca Journal Archive reported a number of sightings, although more than a few ended up being more expected swimmers such as a black cow in 1928, an otter in the 1930s, and other more recognizable creatures from central New York.

Look for the Jonny Quest spider atop the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, a teaching and display museum on Cornell’s campus. I. M. Pei & Partners received the design commission from the Trustees of Cornell University to design the new arts museum in 1968. The iconic “H” shaped building opened in 1973 and was named for its primary benefactor Herbert Fisk Johnson, Jr., a Cornell Class of 1922 graduate. In 1975, the museum was awarded the American Institute of Architects Honor Award, and an image of the building graced the cover of Scientific American. The art museum features permanent collections of over 35,000 works and hosts programs that emphasize arts education for Cornell, Ithaca, and the surrounding region.

Another Cornell building that is shown next to the Johnson is Cornell University's McGraw Clock Tower, which is located adjacent to Uris Library in the center of the Cornell campus. It was built in 1891 and named for Jennie McGraw, a close family friend of Ezra Cornell. The 173-foot clock tower was originally a library and now hosts the Cornell Chimes, a 21-bell set of chimes played daily by “chimesmasters.” The bells first rang at Cornell's opening ceremonies on October 7, 1868, and have since played three concerts daily during the school year with a reduced schedule during the summer and semester breaks, making it one of the largest and most frequently played chimes sets in the world. It is shown in the mural with a pumpkin perched on its spire, referencing an incident that has become a Cornell legend. In 1997, a pumpkin was placed on top of McGraw Tower by unknown pranksters. To this day, the culprits are not known, nor is their method for placing it on the tower.

To the right side of that same panel are the towers at Ithaca College. These 14-floor dormitories for the school are visible landmarks for Ithaca, especially on New Year’s Eve. In 1965, a tradition began of strategically lighting specific windows in the buildings to create the last two digits of the year. At midnight on December 31, the lights changed to reveal the new year. The tradition has held strong for over 50 years, only missing one year in the early 1970s due to an energy crisis.

The image of the moon landing acknowledges a few little-known facts about Cornell’s connection to the 1969 moon landing. Cornell was one of many institutions that was involved in analyzing the samples from the moon. Additionally, according to a 2019 Ithaca Voice article, the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Kroch Library on Cornell’s campus includes “a notebook by Cornell graduate Ernest Sternglass, who conducted research on electron amplification, which helped an estimated 650 million people watch the live images of Armstrong and Aldrin taking their first steps on the moon July 20, 1969.”

**Graffiti with the letters FTP was added in red spray paint during 2020**


This point of interest is part of the tour: History & Art in Downtown Ithaca


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