George Washington University's River Horse – Washington, D.C. - Atlas Obscura

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George Washington University's River Horse

The hippo that stands on this university campus was once a drunken flea market purchase. 

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On George Washington University’s campus stands a statue honoring their unofficial mascot, the river horse. It all started in 1996, when Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the college’s then-president, got drunk and purchased a statue of a hippo at a flea market. His wife refused it as a gift and told him to get rid of it. In turn, he gifted the statue to the graduating class of 2000.

The statue is a dog-sized hippopotamus, with a plaque at the base that reads: “Legend has it that the Potomac was once home to these wondrous beasts. George and Martha Washington are even said to have watched them cavort in the river shallows from the porch of their beloved Mount Vernon on summer evenings. Credited with enhancing the fertility of the plantation, the Washingtons believed the hippopotamus brought them good luck and children on the estate often attempted to lure the creatures close enough to the shore to touch a nose for good luck. So, too, may generations of students of the George Washington University.” The plaque ends with an explanation of what the hippo symbolizes: “Art for wisdom, science for joy, politics for beauty, and a Hippo for hope.”

The story is fictitious—hippos are not native to the United States and the Washingtons did not watch them play in a river near their home (though he may have seen a piece of river dredging equipment called a hippopotamus.)

But since the statue appeared, the hippo has become the unofficial mascot of the university, with students dressing up as hippos at sports events and passersby rubbing the statue’s nose for luck. There is an effort to turn the hippo into an official mascot to replace the former “Colonials” mascot, but so far school administrators have refused to allow the hippo to become official. It is a fun statue of an unexpected animal with a bizarre origin story and cultural impact.

Know Before You Go

The statue stands at the corner of 21st and H Streets NW, next to Lisner Auditorium, a few blocks from the Foggy Bottom Metro station.

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