A re-enfranchised Underground Coffeehouse in Memorial Hall

Sean Ames

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“I’ll need another 3 years to think of a plan.”
-Tony Darling and Ranelle Graber
“I will definitely be watching it.”
-Colleen Welsh
For about a term myself and other Lawrentians have been asking friends and other students if they remember the old Underground Coffeehouse and whether it meant anything to them. There is great nostalgia attached to not only this particularly cozy room, but also to Memorial Hall in general. I fondly recall referring to it as the student union, but maybe the notion of a “student union” is a fad run its course.
Personally, I found it to be one of the most enjoyable venues on campus: the extremely comfy chairs and couches, the soft lighting, the bar with student workers – looking happy to be there – serving up delicious hot and cold beverages.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge fan of jazz-club ambiance, but I’ll be blankety-blanked if that place wasn’t a legit coffeehouse on our campus, run by our students. I don’t think it’s just me who feels that way. I have heard from many who shared these experiences, and the response is that it was a great place.
So. Why don’t we still have it?
Well, for one, apparently utilizing the space as a pitch-tent bookstore at the beginning of each term is more important than maintaining valuable areas for student interaction.
Many have said to me, “Yeah, but where would the bookstore go then?” Well, how about that game/storage room between the coffeehouse and the VR? Or how about converting a section of the enormous Downer facility into a permanent store?
The campus benefited far more when this space was the Underground Coffeehouse. I can’t really believe that there are no other places that could function just as well for that tiny, chop-shop bookstore.
It seems that the prominence of the campus center has led administrators to view the Memorial Hall area as completely irrelevant to student engagements. The only thing there that still stands as a Lawrence tradition is the VR, falling under some special historical protection clause invoked by prominent alumni.
Even that stalwart structure is beginning to feel the pressure of declining sales and general student apathy toward this region of campus. Whether the VR will be able to sustain itself financially in the coming years is questionable. It’s relevant to note that Bon Appétit now operates the VR. At some point, will they decide running the VR is futile or not in the campus’s “best interests”?
One way to avoid that situation is to keep the VR in a stream of steady business. I firmly believe that reopening the coffeehouse would help in this effort by bringing new people and performers back to that location and exposing them to the wonderful tradition of the Lawrence Viking Room and Memorial Hall region.
It might seem that I am pointing a finger at a) the Administration or b) Bon Appétit. This, however, is not the whole truth. I think everybody – student body included – got caught up in the anticipation of this incredibly versatile facility, the campus center. I don’t believe that anyone thought we would ever want to go back to the grimy, old, fifties-style structure of Memorial Hall.
But we often cannot appreciate things until we lose them or we move a significant distance from them. Of course, no students were polled on the matter, but it seemed a rather obvious move with the excommunication of other engagements in the building – the Grill, front desk, student events, etc. What would be the point of keeping the coffeehouse going if everything else were in the campus center?
This is a question being posed now, and I think it can only be answered now, after having given up the old student union. Some believe that a re-enfranchised coffeehouse would have a splintering effect on campus interaction. I believe this is a complete misconception.
What makes a community strong? Is it the amount of wealth amassed? Is it the number awards and praise in national magazines? Is it the size of our buildings? Certainly these things have their merits, but I think what makes a community united and robust is its individuals and their unique philosophies.
Especially in a small community like Lawrence, strength has to come from our diverse and engaged students. My primary critique of the campus center is that is seems like an attempt to be like other, larger universities.
Lawrence does have a stronger community ethic than most, and that’s what makes us stand out. We attract people from around the nation and around the globe. Why does Lawrence have this reputation of a highly engaged, close-knit community in the first place? It’s not because of our glitz or glamour. It’s because students here make most out of their time. It’s a result of small classroom settings, great faculty and a residential campus setting.
With this perspective on what makes our campus a real community, I don’t think there is any way the Underground Coffeehouse could cause a splintering effect. In fact, the effect would be quite the opposite. The following are several reasons why the Underground Coffeehouse should be reopened.
It provided a unique, quiet setting based on the ideals of any coffeehouse: a comfortable and relaxing environment in which people can study, discuss, contemplate or even take a nap – that’s how good those couches were – right on campus.
Students staff the place, which engages and promotes responsibility and a respect for Lawrence facilities. It also provides a few on-campus work opportunities.
The coffeehouse also functioned as a great venue for student and contracted performances. The shape and acoustics of the room were much more suited for the small, live performances now hosted at the café. A number of student performance groups have noticed a decline in attendance and interest this year compared to events at the Underground Coffeehouse.
A reinstated coffeehouse would bring more attention to the bottom floor of Memorial Hall, thereby engaging people with the historic VR and creating a precedent for underclassmen to visit the landmark when of age.
The coffeehouse provides a “sovereign” locale for folks who either don’t drink or are not legal yet. It is important to have spaces on campus disassociated from the campus center but still open to everyone.
In truth, I am writing all of this for very selfish reasons. I miss the Underground Coffeehouse and I want it back. I do not think this is in any way an unreasonable goal. Look at how students were able to reopen Downer Commons as a student art gallery – that activism for our campus is precisely the kind of chutzpah Lawrence can always take more of.
However, the coffeehouse is different. There are business interests at stake in that location which could potentially put pressure on the administration to disapprove the proposal. Ultimately, this comes down to students and how strongly we want to take a hand in our own affairs.
This might be the last chance we have to get the coffeehouse back. In future years, too few students will have even heard of this lovely venue, and by that time who knows what our relationship with Bon Appétit will be.
I ask that anyone who would like to join this effort and see a re-enfranchised Underground Coffeehouse please sign your name on any one of the petition sheets up in the residence halls, campus center or the library. If enough people show enthusiasm, the next step will be to submit a proposal to the Student Welfare Committee.