University of Wisconsin

Jake Kapsner

MADISON, Wis. — Ask students what they think of their Memorial Union and they’ll probably say the same thing:
“It’s the ‘living room’ of the campus.”
That might sound like a schlocky public relations motto, but graduates and students of the University of Wisconsin-Madison consistently refer to the union as the central meeting spot.
Although it’s primarily students who come to sleep, study and drink beer, alumni and locals also take advantage of theater and dance performances, listen to jazz on the lakefront terrace or dine and chat in a German-style pub.
The reason so many people go gaga over for this 71-year-old campus hub? The lakefront location, wide range of activities and cozy charm of its old-world interior and laid-back atmosphere.
Nestled between lakes Mendota and Monona, Wisconsin’s capital city of 200,000 is widely considered a “college town.” From the Capitol building downtown, a visitor can follow the bustling marketplace of State Street a mile to the university’s library mall, where across the street the massive campus begins to spread south and west from Memorial Union along Lake Mendota.
Built in the northern Italian renaissance style, the pillared, five-story union mixes simple, spacious interior motifs with creative, elaborate rooms that emphasize views of the lake.
A 1,200-seat auditorium used for theater, music and dance comprises the building’s west wing. Beneath it, a storage warehouse and workshop hold hundreds of sailboats, sailboards and kayaks that get rolled out into the lake less than 50 yards away when the weather warms.
A glass-walled, lakeview cafeteria on the east wing’s first floor serves early risers bland breakfast fare — albeit at paltry prices.
Down a hallway, in der Rathskeller or “the Rat,” hearty wood benches and time-worn tables etched with initials teem with people lunching and studying. The building’s original designers traveled to Germany and brought the European “cellar bar” concept — and numerous ornaments — back to Wisconsin. Curving brick ceilings with thick pillars and arched doorways add a warm presence to a casual, festive space adorned with murals, metal plaques and biersteins.
In 1933, Memorial Union became the first college union to serve beer. Yet the general consensus is that alcohol isn’t a magic bullet that makes the union thrive; it’s a subtle part of the union’s atmosphere.
“Don’t knock it — having beer is a plus,” said Jim Norton, a union vice president and history major. “But people don’t get loaded at the union. If you want to binge drink, you go to State Street,” he said. “The union is more social, people have a couple drinks and take in a show.”
On Thursday night — Madison’s unofficial start of the weekend — the Rat overflowed with packs of people sipping dusky beer, cheering and jeering students who competed in a stand-up contest for the title, “Madison’s funniest person.”
And many didn’t have to travel far for a laugh.
Brick and field-stone residence halls sit less than three blocks away down a lakeshore path to the west. Fraternity and sorority row is at least as close to the union along the lake to the east. Privately rented apartments abound, spilling into neighborhoods on the fringe of campus.
Early concepts of a Wisconsin union began in 1907 when people met in informal buildings segregated by gender. As the impetus to build a central union grew, fund-raisers took pledges from students and alumni. According to the union’s Web site, “one of every two students in the 1920s pledged $50 (about $350 in today’s dollars) or more to create a building they knew they’d never have a chance to use as students.”
A range of fees and donations — from students, food revenue and general membership dues — continues to keep the union afloat without state funding.
Twelve years ago, for instance, the union’s lakefront terrace underwent a $500,000 expansion, thanks in part to a donor who fished from the pier behind the union and attended films.
Such community support exemplifies the diversity of people who use and appreciate the self-supporting union, said Ted Crabb, Wisconsin Union director.
“We’re not just a student union; we’re a university union,” Crabb said.
All registered students, required to pay $54.80 per semester for the union, are members. Officially, only card-carrying members are allowed access to the union, but in the spirit of community, employees rarely ask to see membership cards. Added revenue comes through the open membership policy, which draws upwards of 2,000 community members each year, and the fact that 40 percent of each graduating class buys a lifetime pass, he said.
In the overall financial picture, the union breaks even, netting around $18 million a year, Crabb said.
The union offers at least 800 programs each year and the menu of offerings stays fresh because students devise, fund and run it, said Susie Weber, union president and a senior in business.
“It’s hard to capture in words the spirit you find in this building,” Weber said.