The "living room of campus," the perpetual winner of countless favorite-place polls, home of the most famous chairs in the solar system - the University of Wisconsin-Madison student union is 100 years old this year.
The centennial will be celebrated with autumn festivities, and with fund-raising to meet 21st-century challenges: a renovated and restored Memorial Union, perhaps with a reconfigured Union Theater that can accommodate a dance floor. A new Union South is scheduled to be completed by 2011, with a 400-seat multi-use theater, a ballroom for 1,000, and a new art storage facility.
There are discussions to cooperate, and even co-produce shows, with the Overture Center. And you can already enjoy the Union's lakeside view from the other side of the world, thanks to the Terrace webcam.
That Madison has a love affair with the Union is obvious. What other city advises tourists to visit a student center? For that matter, how many of us have visited unions in other cities? Perhaps if we did we'd find that our darling is merely...typical.
Don't worry. "No one would say the Wisconsin Union is typical," says Marsha Herman-Betzen, executive director of the Association of College Unions International, based in Bloomington, Ind. "It is a rare gem. The Wisconsin Union is unique in its vibrant student activism and programs. It is nearly always bustling with students, faculty and staff - a characteristic every campus would hope its college union could offer but that many cannot achieve."
A lot of that has to do with a management philosophy that made the Union popular even in the 21 years before it erected its first building. And a lot has to do with city history. Before the Overture Center, before the Madison Civic Center, we had the Union. From the beginning it was a center - for five decades our only center - for arts and recreation.
"It was the community cultural center," says Ted Crabb, Union director from 1968 to 2001. "It was the only show in town."
The Union before the Union
Union South opened in 1971. The Memorial Union opened in 1928. The organization that occupies those buildings is the Wisconsin Union, originally the Wisconsin Men's Union.
Prof. Charles Van Hise called for the creation of a student union in 1904, at his inauguration as UW president. At the time there were just two other unions in the country. The university had been experiencing explosive growth: It had 1,000 students in 1891, 2,000 students in 1899, and more than 3,000 when Van Hise took charge.
Those numbers may seem small; enrollment today is 41,000. But they represented a complete change in the university's social dynamic. Professors were losing touch with students. Worse, Van Hise thought, students were losing touch with each other. What was needed, he said, was a place for "the communal life of instructors and students in work, in play, and in social relations."
Within three years the Wisconsin Men's Union was organized. Women already had a similar organization, but they participated in Union activities (though they were not allowed to do so fully until 1937). Before the Memorial Union opened, programs were held at the Armory (or Red Gym), Madison's Fuller Opera House and Lathrop Hall.
For its own offices, the Union initially rented the first floor of the campus YMCA, which stood until 1956 in what is now the parking lot adjacent to the Memorial Union. There the Union had a cigar counter, soda fountain, shoeshine stand and billiard tables, and the Y itself offered a novel style of eating: a cafeteria.
In 1916 the Union moved next door, to the former student infirmary, roughly where Memorial's front door is today. The Union then moved again, to the old university president's home on the corner with Park Street. Even after the Memorial Union opened, the house was maintained as an annex, until it was demolished for construction of the Union Theater in 1937.
In its early decades, the Union produced a concert series that brought Pablo Casals, Fritz Kreisler, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Jascha Heifetz. Two-time Academy Award-winning actor Fredric March gathered some of his earliest experience as a student in the Union's theatrical productions.
Early fund-raising materials specified that the planned Memorial Union building would include "sketch rooms." In 1930 that idea became the Craftshop, the first facility of its kind in a student union, today offering equipment for woodworking, photography, art metal and stained glass. Since 1972, Union mini-courses have taught dance, writing, glass-blowing, painting, drawing, filmmaking and music.
The Union also has four galleries and its own art collection of more than 1,300 pieces, two-thirds of which are on exhibit at any given time. Represented artists include such big names as Bruce Nauman, Diego Rivera, John Steuart Curry, James Watrous, Thomas Hart Benton, Aaron Bohrod, Joan Miró, Alfred Sessler and Al Hirschfeld.
And the Union was the first to have its own theater. Sinclair Lewis called it "the most beautiful theater, with the most beautiful site, in the world." Besides many classical performers, the Union Theater has hosted an eclectic mix of pop and political legends, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jawaharlal Nehru, Carl Sandburg, Jesse Owens, Count Basie, Henry Kissinger, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
"At one time the theater and the Union were the cultural center for south-central Wisconsin," says Ralph Russo, Union cultural arts director and director of the theater. "And we're still that, though probably for a much smaller audience." In fact, Madison's tastes have been so thoroughly aligned with the Union Theater that two of its directors, Ralph Sandler and Michael Goldberg, were hired away to lead the Madison Civic Center and Overture, respectively.
An emphasis on the arts is unusual for a student union, Russo says. "Porter Butts, who was the first [Union] director, was fully committed to the arts and believed they should play a huge role in the daily life of students in our community. So that's why we have an art collection, that's why we have galleries, that's why we have a theater."
Butts, Union director from 1928 to 1968, had another philosophy that continues today.
"What we have that you won't find at other places is the commitment to student governance," says Mark Guthier, Union director since 2001. "Students still run the place. They make all the decisions about the programming, the art, what goes on the theater stage, what bands play on the Terrace. So it is an investment by students that just keeps it really vital and alive."
Russo says, "For the student who's the director of our theater committee to be able to say, 'I'm responsible for a half-million dollar season' - that's a pretty remarkable thing."
The Union may be a place where campus tradition is celebrated, but because of student governance, its most deeply held tradition is change. "That's a paradox, and it works," says Guthier. "We remind ourselves of that all the time."
A common misperception about the Union was summarized by a 1969 letter to the editor complaining about hippies. "Should a bunch of silly creeps be allowed to make a pigsty out of a building owned and operated by the State of Wisconsin?"
But neither the state nor the university owns or operates the Union. The silly creeps do - the dues-paying members. The Union has always has been a membership organization. In the 1920s, the public bought memberships to help fund construction of the Memorial building. Today, lifetime Union membership is $55 for graduating seniors, $125 for recent graduates, and $50 annually or $259 lifetime to the public.
"There's no direct tax dollars appropriated for the Union," Crabb notes. "The combining of student fees, which is really a membership fee on an annual basis, plus the revenue unit [food sales and such], generates the kind of money that is necessary."
The Union is officially open only to members, students and, as a legacy of its World War II years as a USO, uniformed military personnel. Even UW faculty and staff do not enjoy full privileges without joining. The public is welcomed and appreciated, and they can even buy beer via a courtesy "day card," though that's supposed to be limited to three times per summer.
So why buy a membership at all? More to the point, how can the Union function when it gives away what so many others must pay for?
Students, for example, voted last year to increase their individual Union contributions up to $96 each per semester, so that the long-deteriorating physical plant can be fixed, so other improvements can be made, and so - essentially - college kids can subsidize the cost of serving the greater Madison community. To meet pressing repair needs, a great deal of fund-raising still has to occur.
For Guthier, non-member use is clearly a concern, and an awkward one. He says, "How do we increase that member benefit to create an incentive? Or how do you more gently - 'enforce' is too strong a word...."
The matter is under study.
Meanwhile, it was widely reported that the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee spiked funding for the Union in the proposed state budget. That is not accurate. It deadlocked on part of the overall UW tuition and fees budget, which included students' voluntary fee increase. Guthier hopes for approval in the Senate.
In conceiving the Wisconsin Union, Charles Van Hise said, "Nothing that the professor or laboratory can do for the student can take the place of daily close companionship with hundreds of his fellows." The impact a good student union can make is perhaps best illustrated by a story Ralph Russo likes to tell.
"Around 12 years ago I was in my office and this older gentleman walked in," he recalls. The visitor had been a theater student long ago. He tried his hand at painting, and a few pieces were selected for the Union's student art show. The next year his work won best in show, and his works were purchased. The visitor wanted to know if, all these years later, the Union still had his art.
With some difficulty Russo found the pieces - fortunately they were up at the time. The man took some photos, shook hands and left.
"About three weeks later I got a letter from him thanking me profusely for finding the time to find his pieces," says Russo. "He had quit theater. He went on to be an art major, and he ended up being the dean of fine arts at Yale University."
The visitor was David Pease, and his works today are exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Carnegie Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art and other important institutions.
In his letter to Russo he wrote, "None of them has made as big a difference in the direction of my life as having my artwork purchased by the Wisconsin Union."