Opening of Coffman Union merits Daily special edition

by Justin Costley

While the $37.5 million renovation project of Coffman Memorial Union has made headlines lately in The Minnesota Daily, the paper focused an entire edition to the building’s $2 million construction and opening on Oct. 4, 1940.
The union, named after former University President Lotus Delta Coffman, realized a 25-year dream for student and faculty groups on campus.
The Daily celebrated the union’s unique status in comparison to similar buildings at universities around the country and the new opportunities it promised to provide students.
“In size, furnishings and facilities it is the best college Union in the country,” the Daily reported. “Newest and most modern of all, it is exceeded in original cost only by the University of Wisconsin’s $2.45 million structure.”
The Daily began its coverage of the opening with a history of the project before highlighting the entertainment and cultural activities that the union would provide students.
The quarter-century journey toward a new student union began in 1913 with a consensus that the existing union did not serve the needs of an expanding student enrollment.
The student union used to be housed in a converted chemistry building and did not have the adequate space for all the student groups.
It took more than two decades, however, before a variety of campus organizations presented a resolution to Coffman asking him to consider the building of a new union.
In April 1936, Coffman expressed to the Daily his viewpoint on a new student center. “Some day, the University of Minnesota will have a Student Union as the center of its social life.”
With funding from a variety of sources including $650,000 from a $2-per-quarter tuition increase, $900,000 from a federal grant and a $50,000 campus drive, excavation began in September 1938.
Opened in the fall of 1940, Coffman’s original design housed a fine arts gallery, a ballroom able to accommodate 800 to 900 couples, a 15-table billiard room and a 16-lane bowling alley.
As a sign of the times, the union made separate lounges available for men and women in addition to the main lounge which was open to everyone.
“Under the new constitution women are not only allowed and invited to make use of the Union’s facilities, but are given seats on the Union Board of Governors, student-faculty governing body,” the Daily reported.
In addition to bookstores, game rooms, cafeterias and a mini theatre with two projectors, the union contained numerous pianos throughout Coffman’s six floors.
The current renovation project at the union is an attempt to provide the same innovative service that the original Union brought to campus in the 1940s. It will reaffirm President Coffman’s notion of 64 years ago and provide the University with a “center of social life.”

Justin Costley welcomes comments at jcostle[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3224.