Union Memorial Building (1924, 1936, 1949)
Union Memorial Building, south façade, circa 1934. The main entrance at center was replaced by the south wing in 1949. At right is the front porch of Faculty Row № 10, by then a Home Economics practice house. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Physical Plant.
The Union Memorial Building is an important social center for the university community. The building as it stands today is the end product of several decades of hard work and slow progress.
The first calls for a student union came around the turn of the twentieth century, but despite a great deal of alumni interest, in part fuelled by the Semicentennial celebration of 1907, little came of it. It was not until the start of Frank Kedzie’s administration as President in 1915 that things really began to get rolling.
Frank S. Kedzie (1857–1935, M.A.C. ’77) was the son of longtime Chemistry Professor Robert C. Kedzie, and had grown up on Faculty Row. “Uncle Frank,” as the students and alumni knew him, was only the second alumnus (after Oscar Clute) to become President of the College, and with him in office “alumni activities flourished” and began the movement for what would become the Union Memorial Building. The Class of 1915 pledged five dollars per member if the alumni association would raise a fund, and spirits were high. But the Union would take another ten years to open.[Kuhn, pp. 262–63]
At first, many alumni were strongly in favor of reconstructing College Hall as the student union in order to preserve that hallowed landmark, but the building’s structural issues and subsequent collapse precluded this use. The prospect of an entirely new building was daunting, but a renewed impetus came from “a desire to commemorate through it the men who had fallen” in the First World War. Professor W. O. Hedrick and a series of alumni secretaries pushed the fund drive forward and by 1920 pledges totalled $130,000.[Kuhn, p. 264]
Still, this was far short of the estimated $650,000 cost to build the large but simple Collegiate Gothic design by Chicago firm Pond & Pond (which also created student unions in West Lafayette and Ann Arbor). Even with continuing pledges each year, “the goal was still remote” when ground was broken in June 1923. To save on costs, “Excavation Week” was organized in November of that year, and students used pickaxes and shovels to remove some 3,000 cubic yards of earth for the basement. “Men worked half-days in highly competitive teams while coeds served doughnuts with coffee and the military and Swartz Creek bands furnished music.”[Kuhn, pp. 264–65]
With optimism the cornerstone was laid in June 1924, but by autumn the fund of $300,000 in cash and pledges had all but dried up, and construction was halted. Fortunately, a solution was provided by Governor Alex J. Groesbeck and state Congressman A. C. MacKinnon (M.A.C. ’95), who enabled a bond issue that quickly raised another $300,000. Construction resumed, and the building opened on June 12, 1925, in time for the Sophomore Prom and an alumni reunion.[Kuhn, p. 265. Stanford, p. 64]
The Union Memorial Bulding provided to students, faculty, and alumni such amenities as a ballroom, meeting rooms, lounges, a cafeteria, and barber and beauty shops. However, its interior was “only partially finished,” and due once again to lack of funding it would remain that way for over ten years.[Kuhn, pp. 265–66]
In 1936, the College assumed ownership of the Union, which up until then had been owned by the alumni-based M.A.C. Association. M.S.C. “secured $150,000 in Works Progress Administration funds to finish the original building and add the east wing.”[Stanford, p. 64] A dozen years later funding was apparently no longer an issue as a $2.3 million addition, nearly doubling the building’s size, created both an extension to the south and a new north entrance.[Physical Plant Data Book, pp. 27–28]
Union Memorial Building footprints from its three major construction phases. Image by Kevin S. Forsyth, from campus maps of 1931, 1941, and 1951. Map Credit: M.S.U. Archives, reprinted in Dressel, pp. 365–67.
Near the southwest corner of the Union Memorial Bulding is a fragment of the “Half-way Stone” that once stood along Michigan Avenue midway between the Capitol and campus.