Lawrence history through the archives

Julia Stringfellow

Along with the Memorial Union, Downer Commons is another building whose future is uncertain with the opening of Warch Campus Center in September. At the present time, it appears that the building will be closed for the 2009-2010 academic year. Downer was built in 1968 and has been Lawrence’s main dining center ever since.
Downer Commons would not have been built without the merging of Milwaukee-Downer College with Lawrence in 1964. Some students and faculty of Milwaukee-Downer, an all-women’s college in Milwaukee, transferred to Lawrence at the time of the consolidation. The merger provided financial resources for Lawrence that allowed the dining hall to be built.
Downer Commons was named in honor of Judge Jason Downer, who served as an associate justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court from 1864 to 1867. He served as the president of the board of trustees for Wisconsin Female College, a predecessor to Milwaukee-Downer College, from 1866 to 1871 and again from 1874 to 1878. When Downer died, he left a gift of $65,000 to the college, and the college changed its name to Downer College.
When Downer Commons opened in the fall of 1968, it was able to provide food service for approximately 600 people and contained six dining rooms. As the program for the dedication ceremony stated, “Each dining room has its own distinctive décor, offering the students a choice of environment for their dining.”
Lawrentians have provided several resources throughout the years to help them endure Downer. Downersucks.com was a Web site created a few years ago that provided students with an outlet to voice their opinions about Downer. The site appears to currently be down.
“The Survival Guide to Downer” was a publication written by the Students’ Activities Group on Food and Population in the 1970s that provided insight into “intelligent eating at the L.U. Food Service.”
Another gift that Milwaukee-Downer gave Lawrence was the Alice G. Chapman Teakwood Room that had previously been in the Milwaukee-Downer library. The room was originally built in the home of Alice Chapman, a college trustee, by artist and architect Lockwood de Forest.
Alice first saw a sample of carved teakwood at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892 and ordered a room made of teakwood for her home. After her death, Alice Chapman’s will decreed that the Milwaukee-Downer library would house the room in a specially built wing. The Teakwood Room was placed in Chapman Library when the library was built in 1938. The room was used for receptions, poetry readings and coffee hours.
Upon the news of the merger with Lawrence, the Milwaukee-Downer community pleaded that their beloved room be moved in its entirety to preserve it. The trustees agreed to this request, and the room was carefully disassembled and stored until Downer Commons was built.
The room was reassembled in Downer during the summer of 1968. While it has been at Lawrence, the Teakwood Room has hosted many Lawrence events as well as events held by groups from the Appleton community.
What will happen to Downer Commons and the Teakwood Room after Warch Campus Center opens this fall? No one seems to know for sure. In the meantime, if you have never been in the Teakwood Room, make a trip up to the second floor of Downer and take a look at the room’s furnishings, art, and ceiling. Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning, will be there, smiling at you from her spot in the painting above the fireplace.

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