Lawrence history through the archives

Archivist Julia Stringfellow

As work on the Warch Campus Center nears completion and we look forward to the new building, it will also be the end of an era at Lawrence. Memorial Union has served as the campus hub of activity since 1951, and I doubt there is a member of the Lawrence community who does not have a fond memory of the Union. With the exception of the Viking Room, it is still unclear how the Union will be used after the Warch Campus Center opens. As we look to the future, let us look at the Union’s past and its rich and colorful history.
Talk of building a student union began in 1945 at the end of World War II. Lawrence students and alumni wanted a student union as a memorial to the 72 Lawrence students who died in the first two world wars, the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. Hmar Union, located where Plantz Hall is today, had been Lawrence’s student union since 1926, but it was quickly running out of space.
The first plan for the new union was to connect the campus gymnasium, Alexander Gymnasium I, and Underwood Observatory with a new structure. Both buildings were located where Youngchild Hall currently is. As talk of this new student union continued, activities were planned for Lawrence’s centennial in 1947 that alumni and other visitors would attend.
President Nathan Pusey and the administration decided to lay the cornerstone for the new union during the centennial festivities. The cornerstone was laid June 7, 1947. The cornerstone ceremony was well publicized, and the Appleton Post-Crescent was on hand to take photographs and write an article. All of this took place despite the fact that building plans were incomplete and construction of the new union had not started.
After the cornerstone ceremony, work was delayed on the new union due to a shortage of funds and materials and issues with building codes regarding the gymnasium and observatory. The cornerstone mellowed into the ground, and it was referred to as “Pusey’s Folly.”
Plans for a new building were created, and the land overlooking the Fox River to the east of Sampson House was selected as the new location for the Union. Alumni raised funds for the Union, and construction finally began in 1950. In February 1951, the original cornerstone was laid down again in the union, this time in the alcove between what is now Riverview Lounge and the Grill. This time there was no lavish ceremony, and no photographs were taken. The cornerstone had 1947 chiseled on it at the time, but if you go to the alcove today you will see that it says “In Memoriam.”
As the Union neared completion in the spring of 1951, 500 members of the Lawrence community gathered to clean the new union, move in furniture and complete other tasks for the opening of the building. In early April, the new union was given a trial run and opened to the Lawrence community.
Lawrentians flocked to the Union to witness its first two soda jerks, president Nathan Pusey and vice-president Ralph Watts, prepare ice cream sundaes and fountain drinks behind the counter of the Union Grill for the afternoon. The exhibition of soda jerking was a great success, and when the new Campus Center opens in the fall, wouldn’t this be a grand tradition to repeat?
After the success of the trial run, Memorial Union was formally dedicated June 9, 1951 and opened to the public. The union that took six years to build and cost about $200,000 was finally completed, and as Nathan Pusey stated, “it was a living room for the Lawrence community.”
The next article about Lawrence’s history will look at what Memorial Union was like in the 1950s and 1960s, including the absence of a Viking Room, Operation Ragmop and a visit to Riverview Lounge by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.