Storyteller Series: Coming Together in der Rathskeller
By Andrew Zaruba
“Oh, this is a German beer hall!”
Designer Leon Pescheret saw what would eventually become der Rathskeller in Memorial Union from the moment he walked into the space. His original design still exists today, providing a warm and inviting environment for every visitor. From inside der Rath, it is almost as though you’ve left Memorial Union and entered a new space entirely.
The sounds of music and chatter, the sight of the arches and German-inspired artwork, and the taste of the delicious food create a good feeling unlike any other in Madison, perhaps the entire nation.
“I can’t think of a colleague that doesn’t come here from another Union and say, ‘Boy, I wish we had a space like this,’” says Wisconsin Union Director Mark Guthier.
It does not take long for der Rathskeller to make you realize that your first visit will be the first of many.
The music, film, food, and drink of der Rathskeller are part of what makes it so special.
“Music is the center of the Rathskeller,” Guthier says.
Though “der Rath” only had a jukebox to begin with, the addition of a stage kick-started one of the most iconic parts of the Memorial Union experience: live music. From the open-mic nights to the wide variety of acts on the weekends, der Rathskeller is one of Madison’s best spots to hear live music.
“There’s always been music here,” says former Wisconsin Union Director Ted Crabb.
All throughout the week you can come to der Rath to hear music, watch Wisconsin sporting events, and enjoy the fantastic food.
Der Rathskeller is the place to experience history in the making.
“When major events happen, der Rath is the place where people come to find out what’s happening,” says Crabb, noting how people packed der Rath to find out about presidential elections, the JFK assassination, and the Cold War space race. “As though someone rang a bell, everybody came here to find out what was happening.”
The popularity and community of der Rath make it the perfect spot to come together and experience history with friends old and new.
The core of all events at der Rathskeller is the community.
“If you wanted to meet a friend, it was in the Rathskeller,” Crabb says.
On any day you can come into der Rath and see a wide variety of people enjoying the space. From students cracking books over a burger to alumni returning to enjoy a beverage, you can meet all kinds of people in der Rathskeller. Whether coming with friends or on your own, you are bound to enjoy the busy and friendly atmosphere of der Rath. The feeling of camaraderie has always been essential to der Rath, from the “Danceskeller” dances in the past to the packed college football gameday events of today.
Crabb insists, “That’s what the Rathskeller is—a place for people to come together.”
No matter the reason you come to der Rath, it will always provide a place for you.
Some of the first things you’ll notice coming into der Rath are the carvings in the tables. Though a central part of what makes der Rath special, Crabb claims “somebody started it and others joined in,” with no idea of who or when. It seems as though the carvings are a symbol of the passion the Rath elicits in its visitors. Der Rathskeller inspires visitors to carve names, initials, and messages into the tables because the space is special to them. Each of them becomes a story to tell, as every visitor to der Rath has great things to say about it. Though the practice has fallen out of style lately, you’re bound to feel the need to make your own carving once you visit.
Guthier says that, “There really are some things that stand the test of time, and the Rathskeller is one of them.”
Even after the Memorial Union remodeling project, the Rath remains the same space it was when it opened more than 89 years ago. The carvings in the table act as physical evidence of the impact the space has on people.
“We’ve been able to convey from year to year, generation to generation, in a student’s mind, the Rathskeller is the heart of the campus,” Guthier syas. “It is the place to be.”
From special events to delicious food to the wonderful space to meet, chat, work, or study, the iconic offerings of der Rathskeller keep it the place to be in 2017 and for many years to come.