Terrace Views

New Face, Same Place

Photo courtesy of Andy Manis

Photo courtesy of Andy Manis

The Hamel Family Browsing Library is more than a quiet study room; it is a space that bridges the old and the new. Students today are enjoying the Browsing Library in close to the same manner as their predecessors did decades before. The study and lounge space was restored as part of phase one of the Memorial Union Reinvestment. It was made possible by a gift from the Hamel family—a lead donation to the historic building campaign.

“The Browsing Library really stood out to us,” said George Hamel Jr., whose father graduated from UW in 1966. “It’s got good bones.”

Good bones indeed. The space housed various activities throughout the years—it was at times a recreational reading room, a Travel Center and a Multicultural Center—but for many years it was a quiet place to read or escape the routine of the school day. As Union workers discovered, it’s also a room with an interesting, and until recently, hidden history.

When contractors and Union staff began renovating the space, they uncovered the library’s ornate ceiling thought to have been lost over years of successive maintenance projects. Sometime in the 1950s a drop ceiling was added to improve the room’s sound quality allowing students to take advantage of the many records adorning the library’s wooden racks at that time. Union painters Creighton Hinkes and Joe Padgham were tasked with repainting the intricate details on the ceiling.

“The goal was to make it look like nothing ever happened,” Creighton said.

The Hamel Browsing Library’s uncovered ceiling. Photo courtesy of Wendy Von Below

The Hamel Family Browsing Library’s uncovered ceiling during renovation.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Von Below

This challenging goal allowed for generous repurposing of the library’s features. The staff refinished some of the room’s oak tables and even reused extra wood to make shelving. In addition to restoring the original ceiling, Union staff also ripped up the carpeting and uncovered another secret: beautiful hardwood floors. They also cleaned and repaired the room’s wood paneling and restored all the windows. Unlike most of the west wing renovation, Union staff did a majority of the library’s finishing work.

“I always like it because we see it when it’s just a big empty room and we’ve completed painting and cleaning the wood, and it doesn’t always make sense to you,” Joe said. “But then all of a sudden the chairs and the carpet came in and it all just comes together.”

The staff especially appreciated the trust put on them to restore such a historic room, and are looking forward to working on more projects in future MUR phases. “To be part of renovating one of the UW’s iconic buildings was a great experience,” Joe said. “It was fun to put your initials on something like that.”

Union painters, tech maintenance staff and carpenters all helped return the library to its former stature, its soothing ambiance ideal for quiet reflection in the confines of its comfy chairs. While it may resemble its earlier form and function, the room has changed with the times; with new LED lighting along the ceiling and access to Wi-Fi. Although the updates make the room more comfortable and relevant to the needs of today’s patrons, it still remains an eclectic, warm space that beckons all generations, like the rest of Memorial Union.

“It’s the one place people can go any time,” George Jr. said. “Gray hair or no hair, student, grandparent, or grandchild: it doesn’t matter which stage of life they’re in; people love spending time at the Union.”

The Browsing Library in 1954.  Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

The Browsing Library in 1954.
Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

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