Washington University: Tourist Mecca?

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Wish you were here!
An article in Sunday's New York Times touts the university campus as the hot new tourist destination. Universities, you see, usually have at least one picturesque corner or impressive building (fit for the cover of the admissions catalog), some sort of historical landmark, maybe a museum or two for cultural edification and some legendary restaurant or pizza joint nearby, usually spoken of with wistful nostalgia by misty-eyed alumni.

(Except for my beloved undergraduate institution. They tore down our legendary burger place, damn them!)

The Times sent a daring reporter up to New Haven via Amtrak to check out beautiful Yale University. She stayed in Yale's very own hotel, took in a few museums and followed a campus tour, which, amazingly was not comprised solely of nervous high-school overachievers, but at least one other tourist.

The article got me thinking. What is Yale, after all, but a rich, fancy school? St. Louis has its very own rich, fancy school. Could it be Washington University is missing out on a major marketing opportunity?

"No," says Wash. U. spokesman Steve Givens. "This has never been part of any conversation. The closest we get is parents bringing their kids to look at the school."

Givens claimed not to be bothered by Wash. U.'s lack of tourists. But he did mention that a friend of his had a kid at Notre Dame and tourists buses stop off there all the time. "People come to marvel," he says. "It's a Catholic shrine. They want to see where Rudy played."

Well, damn it, Wash. U. is home to the Bears! The defending champs of the Division III basketball tournament! Not to mention 500-game-winning coach Mark Edwards. (Note to George Clooney: When you're done with your current project, how about making an inspirational sports movie about them?)

Wash. U. has history. It's hosted three Presidential and one Vice-Presidential debate. It's where Sarah Palin winked last fall. That's history, people! It's also right across the street from Forest Park where the World's Fair was. That was even immortalized in a movie, 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis. (Filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, but whatever.)

Wash. U. has the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Wash. U. has the Edison Theatre. (These are the only tourist elements that Givens actually pimped, by the way.) Who cares that Yale's got a couple more museums? Wash. U. is near the St. Louis Art Museum, which also happens to be free, so suck that, New Haven.

You want pizza? Wash. U. is within walking distance of two fine pizza joints. (Both opened within the past year, it's true.) Wash. U. is near Blueberry Hill!

But wait, you say, Wash. U. isn't old and distinguished. Well, guess what? Most of Yale's buildings went up in the 1930s. They were artificially aged. How lame is that?

Extra bonus: at Wash. U., non-students are welcome to walk anywhere. Such was not the case at Yale, where only undergraduates are allowed on the old green, separated from campus by a gate. Once I was in New Haven visiting a friend who happened to be a Yale grad student. It was a lovely summer night, so we took a walk around campus. At the green, we asked a conveniently-located undergraduate whether he could let us through the gate. "No," he said, smirkily, and stepped through and slammed the gate in our faces. At which point I turned to my friend and said that I now understood (Yale alum) George W. Bush a lot better.

People at Wash. U. don't do that. Maybe they would if they could, but they don't have the opportunity.

Ahem. Sorry. Got a little carried away there.

Anyway, my point is, people of Wash. U., don't miss the boat on this one.

Wash. U.: Tourism in 2009!