A comedian performs for the grand opening crowd in The Sett.
Before last Friday, I'd only ever set foot in an operational Union South one time -- the summer before my freshman year at SOAR, UW-Madison's new student orientation. From what I remember, and from what I've heard, the building had the approximate feel of a business-park office complex, complete with strangely clashing teals and maroons. I remember old, worn carpet underfoot and large swaths of white on walls and ceilings where it seemed there should be a painting or a poster or a TV or something, but instead there was only an industrial commitment to budgetary minimalism.
Back then, the SOAR staff opened up the bowling and games area, which was fun for a while, if a little dingy and poorly lit. And there was a huge cafeteria area where we broke out into advising sessions after deciding what majors we'd commit to before changing our minds two years later. In all, it was adequate for a group orientation session. But while seeing Bascom Hill and Lake Mendota in the summer made me excited about spending the next four years of my life in Madison, the old Union South did nothing of the kind.
After returning for two days of the new Union South's grand opening weekend, I can safely say that will no longer be the case for incoming students. The first thing I noticed about Union South 2.0 was how well it's laid out. For all its old-school lakeside charm, one could not claim that merit for Memorial Union -- the only student union I've ever truly known. With its split-levels and redundant staircases, its walled off sections and dozens of tucked-away rooms, Memorial Union is like a five-story haunted mansion whose ghosts have long since gotten lost looking for the theater (no wait, the other theater).
Conversely, Union South was designed with a commitment to openness and flow. On the entry level (second floor), restaurants, shops, an art gallery and information desks span the length of the curving building, capped at one end by The Sett, Union South's answer to The Rathskeller, complete with a stage, fried food menu, a balcony, a climbing wall and the happy return of old Union South's bowling and pool areas. The design is refreshing and somewhat similar to the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery located right across Johnson Street. One potential issue may be that the openness creates fewer quiet places to study than in Memorial Union, though that could have just been due to the large, talkative grand opening crowds.
As an entertainment and social venue, though, the new Union South outshines both its predecessor and its sibling on the lake. The combination of The Sett and the sweeping communal foyer would be great even by themselves, but the inclusion of The Marquee Theater and Varsity Hall seal the deal. The Marquee is a huge upgrade over the dilapidated old Memorial Union Play Circle Theater, where the Wisconsin Union Directorate's film committee previously screened their free movies. Somewhat strangely, the theater concessions are located on the far end of the main floor (the Theater is on the second), meaning that viewers will have to navigate stairs with their popcorn and drinks. But the plush seats and sloped rows of seating definitely beat the threadbare, flat seating provided in the Play Circle.
Varsity Hall's success as a concert venue is a little less certain, but it is at the very least an upgrade over Union South's previous effort, Club 770. I saw the room in use twice over the weekend, first for the opening night show by Of Montreal and then again on Saturday for a salsa dancing class. With the ability to divide the room in three, organizers may want to consider using just two thirds of the room for future, smaller concerts. Of Montreal played to a frantically dancing, sweaty, happy mass. The student who introduced the show gave a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment to the upgrade: "Last time [Of Montreal] played here, all the lights in the lighting rig were out but red. As much as we all loved Club 770, we can probably agree that this is way better."
Lines for food were long at both The Sett and pizza joint Urban Slice, but those should be offset come fall by the opening of two more restaurants, Ginger Root and Harvest Grain. On Friday, a group of comedians headlined by Jasper Redd performed on the raised stage on The Sett's main floor. The opening acts were quickly and verbally frustrated by the bright lighting and lack of attention paid by diners, but Redd knew how to command an audience and managed to make the most of a crowd that was there more to see the building, eat some fried food and drink a couple pitchers than to watch live comedy. The house lights momentarily dimmed during the part of Redd's performance that I watched, which would have been beneficial to the show. But to his chagrin the effect was quickly reversed.
There's no question that Union South is an enormous upgrade for the southwest side of campus, but the question remains: Will students use it? It will surely settle into being a prime meeting spot for the engineering community that lives and attends class nearby. The building is a convenient thirty-second walk from Wendt Library. But the building also has enough features not found elsewhere -- bowling, the climbing wall, and The Marquee -- that it will probably draw crowds from other parts of campus, as well it should. The building definitely deserves the student body's attention, so here's hoping that the openness of the new Union South never feels like the emptiness of the old.