A favorite of alumni and current students, the Memorial Union has been an iconic campus destination since its construction in the fall of 1928 and has remained largely untouched since. To keep the building contemporary and sustainable, the reinvestment project strives to ensure the Memorial Union continues to be a beloved destination on campus for generations to come while meticulously preserving its history. By the means of numerous upgrades, the project seeks to enhance the Wisconsin Union experience through up-to-date and dynamic study, relaxation, and socialization spaces as well as a modern infrastructure.
Mishali Patel, the Memorial Union Student Construction Representative, detailed a timeline for the construction schedule. In June earlier this year, construction began preparation and set-up of the site. “Boldt, the company in charge of construction, worked with both UW-Madison and the Memorial Union to schedule construction around both campus and Union events. They set up and modified things like enclosed pedestrian walkways to maintain the flow around the Union as best possible,” Patel says. At the end of July, construction started with the west wing of the Union. “This is when the project really started to get going,” Patel says. “During demolition, the outer stone faces of the building were removed in an effort to bring them back for use in the final design, keeping true to the historic aspect of the Union and a sustainable design. The interior elements not being kept are being torn down and problems with asbestos are being removed.” Demolition of the west wing was completed late September 2012.
In October 2012, decisions on furniture and decorations were finalized. “Most people think this step is simpler than it actually is. The process is vital to both the Union appearance and maintaining a construction schedule. It also requires strong coordination between the state representative, the Wisconsin Union representative, the UW-Madison representative, the architecture firms Uihlein/Wilson and Moody Nolan, and Boldt construction,” says Patel. “Even with the necessary communication between the parties involved, the project is still on schedule.”
The schedule encompasses Phase I of the reinvestment project, focusing on the west wing of the Union. Funded through student segregated fees, revenue generated by Union services, private donations and state and federal funds for historical structures, the development has a strict budget of $53.2 million. There may be room in the budget for an additional Sunset Lounge that would serve as a pre- and post-performance lobby space just outside the Wisconsin Theatre, adding even more terrace space. The Hoofers space projects to be completed May 2013 and theatre renovations in June 2014, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Wisconsin Theatre.
After Phase I completion, eventually the Memorial Union will transition into the next phases of construction. “We’re focused on the west theatre wing renovation and blurring the line where that is because of the central and east wings that will be renovated in Phase II,” says Julie Grove, an architect and project manager working with UW-Madison. “We have the whole of the theatre area to cover and its associated pieces along with all of the Hoofers related spaces. Any time you’re occupying the site at the same time as construction is a challenging situation. We’re trying to maximize revenues coming in and maintain Union activities while balancing all the construction projects both internally and externally.”
New and upgraded features: Integrated southwest entrance and welcome lobby — Hoofers boat storage and office space — Outdoor brat stand — Better connection to the lakeshore path — Dynamic play circle — Renovated basement space to better highlight craft store — Study and group reservation spaces — Overall interior face-lift
However, instead of just focusing on the Phase I construction, the overall design plan is on a macroscopic scale. “We did plan at a schematic design level for the entire site so that it flows and has some continuity when we enter the secondary phases,” says Wendy von Below, project manager for the Memorial Union. “That was also done for the interior spaces to achieve a rough design level to hopefully accommodate for all future needs.” Materials selection was done through a master planning effort on a conceptual level for the building as a whole so that durable, long life materials can be cohesive with the secondary phases.
Because of the historical nature of the building, steps were taken to ensure the best effort was put forth. A series of workshops examined what makes the Union the Union, and what the necessary elements were to keep the same design in both the first and secondary phases. “Continuous thread ideas like terrazzo flooring that you might see downstairs already or glass blocks from the theatre or some of the limestone detail the idea that we have very historic spaces and a preservation plan in place to expand the historic nature across all phases,” says von Below. The Wisconsin Historical Society helped the Union implement the plan. “There was a set level for the level of preservation detail required and we have tried to follow that as closely as possible,” says Grove. “We’ve done things like a paint layer study to determine the original color of the room before any modifications. We really rolled up our sleeves and did our homework before we started.”
Current demolition and construction has removed the connecting piece between the theatre area and the central wing of the union. Multiple levels were removed to improve the Union’s ease of access, and universal accessibility was achieved. “This became part of the first concept the design team presented; they removed the connector piece and took down everything between the two wings. That will allow us to create an entirely new west entry to guide visitors into a new lobby and realign with the stairs and elevator,” says von Below. Through the refurbished entry and hall, visitors will be able to stand at the entry and see the lake through the entire space, effectively guiding them through the building.
In early October 2012, a small fire started in a portion of the Wisconsin Union Theater under construction. Fortunately, the renovations incurred only minor damages. “The damage that occurred was confined to an area where demolition work is occurring,” says von Below. “There is no impact to the construction schedule or to the renovation plans.” Because the fire was quickly contained and extinguished, there were no injuries to any workers and the project could continue as scheduled.
The rest of the renovations in the west wing add a new element of character to the building. “The overall improvements to the west wing greatly improve the quality of the space,” says von Below. The play circle’s telescoping, retractable seats allow for a dynamic environment that can be customized for each event. The theatre will be restored to its entirety, even with custom carpets reflecting back to the original art modern style of the 1930s, and will improve on the already excellent acoustics. The renovated Hoofers area and Mendota lounge will create a study space directly at water level with incorporated historical pieces that were saved over time.
Before the design and construction, there was an overwhelming response of people offering their input for renovating the Union. “We brought the public in to bring insight and gather any concerns to try and incorporate all ideas,” says Grove. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the painstaking efforts made by the design team for historic preservation. “Recently, I overheard a conversation between some campus community members in which they described how much of a shame it was that the Union was being torn down,” says Grove. “We’re really trying to convey that the Union isn’t going anywhere. After the reinvestment project, the building will be a cleaned up, dressed up version of what it is today and nothing will be lost in the process.” In 1948, Time magazine summed up the Union’s atmosphere, stating, “It’s almost impossible not to have a good time at Wisconsin,” as quoted in the 1992 August edition of the Wisconsin Engineer Magazine. The statement held true then and still does now. Through the conservation efforts, the Memorial Union will be preserved and immortalized for the enjoyment of generations to come.