It has seen rivalries in the 1920s, political protests in the 1960s, a Bruce Springsteen transformation in the 1980s, and everything else from marriage proposals, to vandalism and neglect through the decades. 

The P celebrated 100 years this quarter. It was first mentioned in a 1919 issue of the Polygram, now Mustang News. According to the article, Cal Poly students awoke one fall morning to find several large “H”s on the hills around town. Cal Poly students changed each “H” into a “P” and proceeded to concentrate their defense on one specific “P” — the one that remains today. 

The P quickly turned into a longstanding tradition of transformations reflecting the campus climate.

The 50-by-35 foot structure that is just up the hill from the South Mountain Halls was initially a rock and lime configuration.

Steven Marx, co-author of Cal Poly Land and Field Guide and a retired professor, first arrived in San Luis Obispo in the 1980s and has since seen The P change several times. 

He said he remembers a time when fraternities would carry white sheets up the hill and turn the P into Greek letters. 

“That period was really chaotic. One of my neighbors, she would go up there with a bunch of plastic bags and clean up the mess,” Marx said. “The neighbors were not happy about the litter.” 

While changing The P now requires Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) approval, it was not always this way. 

In the 1920s, the “Freshmen-Sophomore brawl” was an athletic contest between the freshman and sophomore class that determined who would maintain the P for the remainder of the year. The contest consisted of three-legged races, tire races, tug-of-war, and a greased pole climb, according to the Polygram. 

In later years, the rally club would drag up a generator up to the P before football games, and The P would be replaced with a lit “V” for victory if they won. 

Over time, the original rock and lime structure deteriorated heavily. In 1957, Delta Sigma Phi built an enlarged “P” made out of concrete with the help of agricultural engineering students. 

In the decades that followed, The P would become a space where clubs, organizations, friends and determined individuals would convey their message in 50-foot letters. 

The P was transformed to spell out “GOP” (Grand Old Party) in 1964 during the Republican presidential primaries, “pot” in the 1970s, and “SPRINGSTEEN” by an ambitious group of music fans in the 1980s, according to the Robert E. Kennedy Library website. 

And in 1994 the Running Thunder spirit organization and the Sierra Club blazed a trail to the top of The P, this trail became the basis for the current trail, according to the Robert E. Kennedy Library website.

It was painted green by environmentalist groups, rainbow for Pride Week, red, white and blue in response to 9/11, red and green for Christmas, and decorated with hearts for Valentine’s Day. 

It was an FBI excavation site during a search for remains connected to the Kristin Smart case. And recently it was painted red to honor veterans. 

The P does not just serve as a means of expression, but also as a spot for students to unwind and soak in the sights of San Luis Obispo.

“It’s a getaway right here on our campus,” mechanical engineer senior Jacob Torrey said. “Freshmen year we would all basically live up there.” 

The cooperative efforts of clubs, organizations and passionate students have kept The P alive throughout the century. It has been neglected, reopened, and restored with different materials throughout time, but never removed.

In 2015 and 2017, The P was temporarily closed by Cal Poly due to safety concerns and restored by ASI in order to improve access and movement around the structure. 

According to an ASI manual for decorating the Cal Poly P, “groups can reserve The P from Sunday beginning at 6 a.m. through Friday at 5 p.m. By Friday at 5 p.m., The P must be returned to its original white paint. 

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