Union 101: The History of the Wisconsin Union’s Creation
Almost 114 years have passed since former University of Wisconsin-Madison President Charles Van Hise called for a student union to be created during his inaugural address to the campus community.
Inspired by unions at Ivy League universities and Oxford, Van Hise originally envisioned the union as a place for students to congregate after class.
“When the students are done with their work in the evening, the attractive union is at hand, where refreshments may be had, and a pleasant hour may be spent at games, with magazines, in a novel, or in social chat,” Van Hise said at his Aug. 12 address in 1904.
Van Hise realized the economic toll establishing a union and constructing a building would take, but continued to ask the Wisconsin legislature for funds for a union year after year. Faced with dissent from legislators that a union was not essentially a classroom building, Van Hise proposed his plan to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.
Starting in 1919, just after Van Hise finished his role as president, Regent Walter Kohler decided the wait for a union building had been long enough. Kohler spearheaded a committee of alumni, faculty and students who set out to raise the needed funds of more than $1 million. The building was to be made the university’s memorial to the men and women who served in World War I.
The committee came up with clever ways to fundraise throughout the 1920s. In December 1923, the Union Board held dances with “the best music on the best floor and with the best crowd,” with proceeds going directly toward construction costs. That same month, The Daily Cardinal student newspaper published an editorial supporting the Union’s reinstating of “Vodvill” or vaudeville, the popular entertainment show featuring song, dance and burlesque comedy shows. By 1924, student class presidents, deans and professors all spent their time encouraging students and alumni alike to donate to the Union’s cause.
Construction for Memorial Union finally broke ground Nov. 11, 1925, following years of fundraising—and, on Oct. 5, 1928, the building formally opened and was dedicated to the men and women of UW-Madison who served in our country’s wars. By 1929, the Union team created a four-point plan detailing their main objectives, all of which centered around becoming a source of social education at UW-Madison, a tradition the Wisconsin Union continues to pursue today.
As the Wisconsin Union begins celebrating Memorial Union’s upcoming 90th birthday, it’s an opportunity to look back on the Union’s history. Following in Van Hise’s footsteps, the Union is still a place for everybody: students, alumni, faculty and community members alike.
With Terrace season just around the corner, becoming a member of the Wisconsin Union is just as influential of an opportunity as it was almost a century ago. From discounts on theater and bus tickets, room rentals, access to Outdoor UW rentals and more, our members’ enjoyment with the Wisconsin Union allows us to live out President Van Hise’s dream.