The MSU Union's 75th Birthday

By Fred Honhart

The MSU Union is probably the busiest building on campus , with a myriad activities for students, alumni and the public around the clock, seven days a week. As MSU nears its Sesquicentennial in 2005, and as the Union celebrates its 75th anniversary, we asked MSU archivist Fred Honhart to recount the building’s fascinating history. The following account is based on sources in MSU Archives & Historical Collections and from Madison Kuhn’s classic, Michigan State: The First Hundred Years (MSU Press, 1955).

The idea of a student union came relatively late to the U.S. The first student union was organized at Cambridge University, England, in 1815 as a "union" of three debating societies. In 1866 a building was constructed at Cambridge with meeting rooms, dining areas, and other facility functions consistent with the concept of a student union. This idea eventually became popular in the U.S. around the turn of the century with many colleges and universities building student unions on their campuses. In 1905, a committee was organized at Michigan Agricultural College to raise funding for a student union. Architectural drawings were prepared and there was support from the alumni, but nothing came of the project at that time.

Ten years later the idea of an MSU Union was revived under the Presidency of Frank Kedzie. He was interested in expanding alumni activities at the College and one way to accomplish this was the construction of a student union. In response, the Class of 1915 promised a contribution of $5 from each member provided the Alumni Association would establish a fund for a student union. Henry A. Haigh, Class of 1874 and Alumni Association President, secured the Association’s support and in April, 1916, the Alumni Association created an organization for the building of the M.A.C. Union at mass meeting of the student body.

The initial decision was to rebuild College Hall as the facility for the new Student Union Building. College Hall was not occupied at the time because of the deteriorating condition of the building. A subsequent structural examination revealed numerous engineering problems with the building that made it fiscally irresponsible to try to renovate. Six months later the decision as to what to do with the first College building became a moot issue. One August day in 1918, as the National Anthem was being played by the band at a nearby war trainees retreat, the walls of College Hall began to collapse. Members of the football team were used to finish tearing down the building.

With College Hall no longer a possibility as the site for the student union, the decision was made to obtain funding for a new building. During World War I, fundraising and planning for the new union building was temporarily halted. When planning was resumed after the war it was decided to change the name of the facility to the "Memorial Union" to honor the MAC students who has died in the war. In order to make some progress on the building, Alumni Secretary C. W. McKibbin, with President Kedzie’s support, organized a fund drive for the building. Within a year pledges totaling $130,000 were committed and the Chicago architectural firm of Pond and Pond was hired to draw plans for a building. Pond and Pond had designed several university student union buildings, including student unions at the University of Michigan and Purdue. The architects provided the College with an attractive structure, which was estimated at $650,000. While pledges continued to be received, the monies in hand were far short of the $650,000 goal when a ground-breaking ceremony was held at the site in June, 1923.

Even with the ground-breaking ceremony, only a few additional dollars were pledged and it appeared that the construction of the building was only something in the distant future. Robert J. McCarthy, Alumni Secretary, was determined to move forward despite the lack of funds. He was concerned that if some major step forward was not made the project would continue to languish. He decided to have an "Excavation Week" for the new Memorial Union Building whereby the foundation area would be dug out by hand! Students, faculty and other supporters of the College were invited to participate in the event in November 1923. The idea was to jump start the stalled project by getting the ground for the basement dug out and the foundation prepared so that construction could start on the building. The basement being dug out by volunteer labor would also reduce the cost of the building.

Half-day shifts were planned and the men diggers were organized into teams, which competed against each other. Coeds served coffee and doughnuts and the military and Swartz Creek bands furnished music for the occasion. Mrs. Dora Stockman and several other members of the Board of Agriculture (predecessor to the Board of Trustees) participated in the excavation by loading a cart. Members of the faculty also participated in the project, digging out several cartloads. "Excavation Week" was a great short-term success, as it saved the Memorial Union Building project and generated new gifts and pledges for the building.

In June, 1924, the cornerstone was laid and construction started on the building. However, only $200,000 was available for the building and by fall the construction stalled due to lack of funds. The building was saved by the intervention of the state legislature and Governor Alex J. Groesbeck. He was a strong supporter of the College and with a bill introduced by A. C. McKinnon, Class of ‘95, the state of Michigan invested $300,000 in state sinking funds to bond the cost of completing construction of the building. The Memorial Union Building opened in June1925, though a portion of the interior remained unfinished because of the limited funds.

When opened, the building had facilities for dinning, including a cafeteria for men and women and a separate cafeteria for just men, meeting rooms, a large Assembly Hall and 16 private guest rooms on the second and third floors. A bronze marker with the names of the alumni who had died in the First World War was placed in the lobby, and beams from College Hall were incorporated into a ceiling of the building. The offices of the Alumni Association were in the building and for the next ten years it was owned and managed by the Alumni Association.

The Alumni Association was never able to raise more than $25,000 on the interest due the state bonds subscribed to complete the construction of the building. In 1935 the Association agreed to transfer ownership of the building to the College. By doing so the College was able to obtain W.P.A. funds to complete the areas of the building which were never completed from a decade earlier. This included the construction of the East Wing, which had been planned but never built because of the lack of funds.

After the Second World War another major addition and remodeling was done to the building at a cost of $3 million. This included the South Wing and extensive remodeling of the existing facilities. With its renovations the Student Union was recognized as one of the outstanding facilities of its kind in the country. Its kitchen won a national award for its food. Recreational facilities were added, including a bowling alley and billiards. Classrooms for the Art Department, a ticket office, travel bureau, the college bookstore, a grill, men and women’s faculty association rooms, student publication and organization offices, and a barber shop were now a part of the building.

One amusing incident that occurred in the Union Building took place when Gen. Douglas MacArthur visited the campus on May 15, 1952. He and his family and security entourage were going from one floor to another using a freight elevator to provide privacy for the General. However, the elevator got stuck between floors and it took more than 20 minutes for it to be fixed. At that point the General reputedly turned the air blue with his comments on the elevator and and the time it took to repair it!

Thankfully, the Union mishap did not rise to the level of Corregidor, and although no one heard him promise "I shall return," in 1961 Gen. MacArthur in fact did return to MSU to deliver the commencement address.

In the subsequent 50 years many changes have taken place in the operations of the MSU Union. Many of the functions have moved to other locations - for example, the bookstore moved to the International Center. It is no longer the only student recreational/meeting area on campus, but one of several. Guestrooms have been converted into other uses, and the basement now houses one of the larger computer labs on campus. However, the offices of the MSU Alumni Association continue to be housed in the building, although the space remains quite limited relative to the future needs of the University’s growing number of alumni. The Union boasts a popular food court, a bowling alley, a large computer room, a travel office, and many other services and meeting rooms.

Even though it remains located on the edge of campus at Abbott and Grand River, rather than nearer the geographical center of campus, the MSU Union continues to be a major hub for campus-related activities - including as one site for the time-honored student practice of holding debates.


Author’s Note:

Fred Honhart, director of University Archives & Historical Collections, has been an MSU archivist since 1974. He pioneered the MicroMARC , an archives and libraries collections management system for PCs, first released in 1986. Most recently, he presented an address on records management and archives to the International Archives Congress, Colleges and Universities section, in Israel.



What’s the busiest site on campus? "The MSU Union has been the most heavily used building on campus since 1925, and remains so today," says Jim Sheppard, manager of the MSU Union, who hastens to add, "And I can back up my claim."

Last year, the MSU Union hosted 3,233 events with an aggregate attendance of more than 200,000. The events ranged from student social and academic gatherings, to departmental and extension meetings, to off-campus group activities. In addition, the MSU Union houses the MSU Alumni Association offices, including the Student Alumni Foundation, the Women’s Resources Center, the Multicultural Center, and a whole host of student organizations and other offices.

The MSU Union boasts 175,000 square feet of usable space, including 22,000 for banquets and meetings. Services include a food court, a travel office, the Union Station Cafeteria, spirit shops, a barber shop, a bowling alley, a billiard room, a large 24-hour computer lab, the Daily Grind coffee stand, a U.S. Post Office, an ATM machine, and information services of every kind - fax, telegram and photocopying. Entertainment is often provided during lunchtime.

Those who use the Union today probably have no clue that 75 years ago, a group of student, faculty and alumni volunteers dug up the foundation to make possible the convenience of having so many services and activities in one single building.