Indiana University

Andrew Donohue

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The Gothic stone walls, vaulted wood-lined ceilings, glowing stained-glass windows and graceful banquet rooms of the Indiana Memorial Union seem more suited for a king and queen than college students.
A small brook serenades one side of the spectacular union. Like a moat, it surrounds the towering building departing to wind through the center of campus.
A seven-story tower stands guard over the 90-year-old structure, with a classic architecture style matching that of the entire campus; stately stone halls and buildings of quintessential academia mingle with vast patches of towering trees.
The Gothic ambiance of the union belies the array of modern conveniences inside. Elegant meeting rooms, grand pianos and brass-framed paintings telling the story of early America co-exist with Pizza Hut Express, bowling lanes and computer terminals. Just one floor below the union’s 186-room hotel, a quiet study lounge is filled with leather couches, plaid easy chairs and fatigued students.
But it isn’t necessarily the majestic atmosphere that keeps students flowing in and out of the union doors.
The overwhelming consensus among students at Indiana: The union is a great place to eat, study, sleep and just hang out.
History and tradition, said union director Winston Shindell, make the union successful.
“Because of its traffic, it’s sort of like Main Street. It’s a place to see and be seen,” he said.
The warm glow of a 5-foot-wide fireplace adorns one wall of a study area, contributing to the quiet, relaxed atmosphere.
The union’s three main study areas are different in construction, but silence is consistent throughout. An occasional cough, snicker or whisper may break the quiet, but only for a moment. The rooms are packed during the day with many studiers and sleepers spilling out onto the lavish carpet because of the crowded couches and chairs.
Down one level, the scene is rowdier. Bowling balls thunder, students holler and cafeteria employees hurriedly prepare the day’s meals.
The union offers three cafeteria-style eateries, one snack cafe and a classy lunch buffet.
Choices range from the traditional sandwich to a Pizza Hut pizza and breadsticks. Below the main cafeteria, healthy alternatives like a baked potato with toppings are available.
At the Tudor Room, a luxurious lunch buffet in the style of Elizabethan England, students can enjoy a full three-course buffet for $7.75. The menu rotates, with Thursday’s choices being herb-crusted cod, teriyaki chicken, cooked vegetables and a 10-foot-long desert table.
The restaurant is so popular that reservations are required, and its plush chairs are filled with backpack-toting, jeans-clad students throughout midday.
“You can’t find better food anywhere on campus,” said Patrick Williams, a sophomore art history major who frequents the union four or five times a week.
Shindell said food service’s popularity has increased since the union joined with the residence halls’ meal plan. Many students who live off-campus join the meal plan just to eat at the union. Students can eat anywhere at the union and put the meal on their student access card; the money is removed from an existing balance.
The West Tower of the union boasts a long list of student organizations, from the Indiana University Student Association to a group which lobbies to legalize marijuana. In its first year of existence, the group claims to be the largest student organization on campus, with more than 1,000 members.
The union also offers several other services to the students, including the campus bookstore, a Ticketmaster outlet, credit union, post office and hair salon.
But this success hasn’t happened overnight. In 1960, Indiana completed its first major union renovations, adding a hotel, meeting rooms and food services.
In the mid-1980s, union officials realized they were not competitive with the market. Union traffic was down and they had not been investing in the building. In 1989, the union began an ongoing round of renovations. Piece by piece, the union has been renovated over the past 10 years, keeping with students’ requests to maintain the Gothic style. To date, construction costs have totalled more than $25 million.
Using money freed up from the completion of other campus construction projects — none of which has come directly from students’ pockets — the union began pumping money into improvements. It also took out a new food service contract with Sodexho-Marriott, which runs all food services in the union.
Shindell said it was the move to Sodexho-Marriott that turned the union around.
With renovations done to the hotel and a profitable food service, the union is self-supportive. It brings in $11.5 million per year and, after expenses, earns $300,000 annually to fund its own renovation projects.