Reopening the University Club with a Shared Vision and Many Areas of Expertise
Majestic inside and out since the day it began: the University Club has been part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison story since 1908 when it opened its doors to what would be more than a century of gatherings, meals and social and intellectual exchange. It stands four floors with deeply rich red bricks along its edifice, tall along a bustling campus thoroughfare. It is a historic destination sitting among both newer buildings and spaces with histories almost as long as the Club’s.
The idea for the club first formed in 1906, according to available records, and, though some of its spaces and operations changed over the decades, its heart of social and intellectual gathering remain, including under the management of our team at the Wisconsin Union.
Our team only recently assumed a role in the University Club’s story. At the time of its closure in March 2020, the Club offered dining service and event spaces. COVID-19 forced a temporary closure of the Club, contributing to insurmountable financial loss. The University Club board of directors voted to dissolve the club as an incorporated social organization, to integrate the Club fully into the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and to have the Wisconsin Union manage the Club.
We are writing a new chapter in the Club’s history at the Wisconsin Union, and every Union department has played a role in making that new chapter possible.
A New Chapter
Hundreds of Union team members went to work to reopen the then closed for business University Club. The Club gained the expertise of more than 400 full-time Wisconsin Union team members when it became part of the non-profit campus organization.
Assessing hiring needs, dining operations, facilities, and overall management…there was much to be done, and the team got to work knowing the importance of what they were doing: bringing back a beloved, historic building with invaluable space for dining and socialization.
The University Club’s first floor reopened and the new dining concept Union Commons at the University Club debuted on Jan. 23, 2023.
Associate Director for Dining and Hospitality Services Carl Korz said the University Club was “the chance to clean up a significant piece of university history and make it available to a broader audience.”
After more than a year of its kitchens going unused, Carl’s team and our facilities team wiped off the dust and examined equipment to determine what the Club’s dining future would be.
“A lot of the process was based on what architecture and services were available,” Carl said.
While the kitchen will likely undergo a full renovation in the future, Carl and his team revived the production spaces with some new equipment and reconfigured operations to make the new dining concept Union Commons at the University Club possible.
Prior to closing, patrons would sit at tables in the Wayside Dining Room, order from their tables and have food and beverages served by staff to their tables. Patrons would usually spend at least 45 minutes in the dining area ordering and then enjoying their made-to-order food.
With the restaurant then-closed, the Wisconsin Union dining and hospitality team had an opportunity to imagine a future that meets the current needs of the community: food and beverages that are delicious, cost-effective, mostly house-made and ready to be enjoyed quickly. A new, more casual dining experience was born with two service counters that, between them, feature a variety of beverages, including Rooted Grounds coffee and espresso drinks tea, and wine; house-made bakery items; house-made soups; house-made and toasted sandwiches, including a pesto chicken sandwich and a vegetarian Caprese sandwich; and house-made salads.
Patrons can order at service counters and bring their orders to the building’s seating or take their menu items to go, making it possible to enjoy delicious food no matter their schedules.
An Elegant Setting
Though dust hung in the area when our facilities team arrived to assess the University Club’s spaces, the team saw the potential. The staff members saw the beauty and artistry of the bold, dark wooden beams across the first floor’s ceiling. They saw the inviting, slightly worn yet still elegant mauve couches in the sitting area that had not had visitors for years at that point. They saw how well the mahogany through the spaces married with the splashes of warm tones. And the facilities team members committed to retaining the beauty and elegance of the Tudor-style building. They added touches that complemented the reddish hues already present in the spaces. They also cleaned from floor to ceiling, attending to every nook and preparing the space for a new future.
The first floor needed the attention of our professional painters. And though most would not detect a significant difference from the first floor they previously knew to the one enjoyed today, our painters almost completely repainted that floor, reviving its charm and vibrance.
The team determined that some of the tables had served their last guests due to their quite used conditions. This presented an opportunity; the facilities team drew out a plan for a new sitting plan that maximized available space and allows our team to serve more patrons. The team brought together its operational expertise and math skills to create a plan. New tables soon arrived to make the vision a reality.
Town Meets Gown
From the moment the Union began managing the Club, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Wisconsin Union Director Mark Guthier has played a critical role in planning for the Club’s future.
With our larger team, he envisioned a place that furthers the Union’s overall approach to creating spaces where, as he often says, “town meets gown.” This phrase has come to mean the relationship between a university and the town in which it sits. For us at the Union, this also means creating places in which all feel welcome and comfortable, places that humbly welcome its patrons without the slightest hint of pretentiousness.
From reimagining seating to welcome more patrons to offering casual counter service, departments across the Union worked to achieve that shared overall vision.
“We are thrilled to re-open this important and historic space for the benefit of the UW–Madison campus and Madison communities,” Mark said. “We hope students, faculty, staff, and community members will discover its charm and add it to their list of favorite spaces to meet each other and hang out on the campus.”
Though we have achieved the reopening of the Club and an introduction of the new dining concept, we are still dreaming and planning for the University Club’s future. We hope that this future will include renovations to prepare the Club for future dining services, possible event space reservations and events experiences. Until then, we are proud to offer Union Commons as well as other dining options throughout downtown Madison and event space reservations for Wisconsin Union lifetime and annual members in other buildings, such as Memorial Union and Union South.
“We envision Union Commons and the University Club to be wonderful extensions of the Wisconsin Union’s mission to build an inclusive and intellectually inquisitive community in the heart of campus,” Mark said.
We invite you to visit Union Commons at the University Club at 803 State Street in Madison. The building is located next to the Humanities Building on Library Mall. Purchases at the Club help support Union services, events, spaces and student leadership opportunities, some of which provide academic stipends of up to 80% of students’ in-state tuition. We look forward to welcoming you to the Club soon.