Storyteller Series: The Magic of the Terrace
Sitting atop the iconic sunburst chairs, taking in the lake view with visitors chatting and snapping pictures nearby, former Union Director Ted Crabb and current Union Director Mark Guthier discussed the Memorial Union Terrace and its role as a beloved campus and community gathering place. “This is just something special, you sense it in the people that are here and the activity going on,” Crabb commented. While there is no doubt that the Terrace holds a special place in the heart of almost every Madisonian, the Terrace is so much more than just a feel-good place with some really tasty brats.
While the Terrace is perhaps one of the most quintessential places in Madison today, the road to our current Terrace began with plans that paid little attention to the ever popular “undergraduate playground” altogether. “The design for the Terrace as we know it wasn’t a part of the original Union building plan. Almost as an afterthought, the architect hired his daughter (a landscape architect) to design a plan for the space between the building and the lake. This iconic spot has transformed into a favorite for the entire city. This is now the place where town meets gown. It’s the campus, it’s the community and everyone comes together here,” Guthier said.
The Terrace wouldn’t be complete without the iconic sunburst chairs. Having gone through 12 variations trying to find the right chair, the Union finally landed on one. They left no room for future mistakes by patenting the Terrace’s very own chair. With the Sunburst chair then becoming the logo of the Union, the sign of fun, and the draw for the city of Madison, the Terrace itself has become synonymous with summer. Alongside the Sunburst logo, the Terrace has come to depict a place of ultimate inclusivity between community and campus, something unique to Madison.
Beyond just a hang-out spot for the community, the Terrace also provides a platform for students to get experience planning events and activities. As Guthier discussed, the efforts of the film and music committees have blossomed into a series of events with widespread community participation. The Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD), committees of students who organize different events around the Union, formed two committees in particular, WUD Music and WUD Film, that have created some of the most popular events on the Terrace, now called Terrace After Dark. From folk singing in the 1950s to current-day Open Mic nights every Wednesday, student programming is a huge part of what makes the Terrace special. “The expansion of the Terrace really opened the door to programming beyond ‘star deck’ juke box dancing and folk singing around campfires,” Crabb said.
Whether it be sharing a pitcher or some good conversation, the Terrace provides a common space for students, employees, professors, alumni and community members to come together. “It is the great equalizer, everybody belongs here,” Guthier said. It is this open, inviting quality that makes the Terrace special, this is what makes you want to show this iconic plaza to your friends and family when they come to visit. “You come here with friends and family, you introduce the Terrace to someone when you want them to have a good time. Then you get here and the environment takes that initial reason for coming to the Terrace and just adds value and meaning to the whole experience. The whole premise of the Terrace sets you up to create these memories,” Guthier said.
Among the aromas of grilled brats and corn on the newly remodeled Terrace, Crabb and Guthier discussed the need for this latest renovation with a look back to the ’80s Terrace makeover. Understanding that the progression of the Terrace calls for a balance of preservation and evolution, Guthier said, “The reiteration of the Terrace this time incorporates features to support those program elements that have grown, like film, music and morning yoga. It is all about assisting the students in providing these programs for the campus and community.”
The Terrace isn’t merely a space between the Union and the lake, but a beautiful setting that calls to people of all walks of life. It’s about the people who breathe life into that place. The Terrace magic is us. It is the students who come to participate in morning yoga, it is the family that brings their kids for Babcock ice cream, it is the professor who waves to students when they meet. The Terrace is much more than chairs and brats and a stage, the Terrace is home.