U-M: Campus helps iconic Michigan Union mark its 100th birthday

By Susan Thwing / U-M Student Life Auxiliary Marketing

More than 500 students, staff, faculty and friends turned out Oct. 16 to wish a happy 100th birthday to a dear friend, the Michigan Union.

Signing a card and enjoying birthday cupcakes on the Diag, guests helped mark the centennial anniversary of the opening of the historic and iconic building. The Charles Baird Carillon’s 53 bells also played in honor of the occasion.

Guests also learned the Union will reopen in January 2020, after undergoing an $85.2 million renovation to the 250,000-square-foot space that began in April 2018.

“It’s very fitting to announce the January reopening on the Union’s 100th birthday, celebrating with students and staff who have been so instrumental in the Union’s birth, development and renovation,” said Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services.

“At its core, the Michigan Union was an idea — formed into an organization in 1904 — with the purpose of building community by bringing students together. The Union will continue to do so for the next 100 years as a beloved space and a center of community.”

Founded in 1904, the Michigan Union began as an “all-inclusive organization” focused on providing feelings of unity for men on campus. Its founders soon realized they needed a space to fulfill their community building mission so, in 1907, they purchased the former house of Judge Thomas M. Cooley, a longtime Law School professor, on State Street at the end of South University Avenue.

The Union soon outgrew the Cooley House, and in 1910, the Michigan Union hired architect brothers Irving Kane Pond and Allen Bartlit Pond of Ann Arbor to design a new building. In 1916, the Cooley house was demolished and construction began.

Construction progress lagged due to America’s entry into World War I. However, a $260,000 loan from the Michigan War Preparedness Board allowed the building to be completed and used as a barracks for the Students’ Army Training Corps.

The interior was completed after World War I and the building officially opened in 1919 — the birthday milestone being celebrated this week.

Over the years, the Union has evolved and grown as student needs have changed, making advancements and strides with the times.

Originally, women were only allowed to enter the building through the north entrance and when accompanied by a male escort. Those requirements were dropped in 1956, and in 1968 the last place in the Union to have such a policy — the Billiards Room — admitted women on an equal basis.

Over the decades, the Union has become the center of campus life, hosting diverse activities including farmers markets, band performances, lectures, poetry slams and activism events.

The Union has hosted many notable visitors including on Oct. 14, 1960, when then Sen. John F. Kennedy, who would be elected president later that year, gave his historic speech on the Union steps announcing the idea of the Peace Corps. In November 1962, the Michigan Union Special Projects Committee invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak on campus and meet with students in the Michigan Union.

The current renovation is not the first. The Union saw major additions in 1937 and 1956, and has seen small renovations over the years.

As in the founding of the Union, students have continued their role by advocating for upgrades to the facility. The most recent project is the first renovation of the facility in more than 25 years, with a design goal to restore the historic nature of the facility as well as make student and staff spaces more effective and usable.

This renovation focuses on:

  • Enhancing social space on the main level of the building by enclosing the courtyard.
  • Expanding and improving lounge and study spaces.
  • Creating an IdeaHub, a state-of-the-art student organization and student involvement space.
  • Improving spaces for counseling and student support services.
  • Creating enhanced meeting space near the main ballroom.

The project also includes deep infrastructure renewal such as electrical, mechanical and plumbing system improvements, elevator upgrades, replacement of the roof, restoration of windows, interior finish upgrades on floors one through four, and restroom upgrades.

The Union’s North Entrance was also redesigned to become a more welcoming, open and light-infused entrance with an enclosed ADA-accessible ramp.