Terrace Views

Terrace Through the Decades

For nearly a century, the Wisconsin Union’s Memorial Union Terrace has served as campus’s lakefront backyard. There, we, at the Union, have plentiful food options, activities ranging from music and film to studio art, and the best view in town.

Since its very beginning, the Terrace has been a place for everyone to come together and have fun — whether you’re a UW-Madison student or faculty or staff member, Union member or guest.

In this article, we provide an overview of how the Terrace has changed throughout the years, from landscape to programming, and some of the amazing moments throughout this this iconic destination’s history.

1920s:

The Memorial Union Terrace opened in late 1928 and was designed by Charlotte Peabody, the daughter of Arthur Peabody. Arthur designed the nearby Memorial Union, which debuted that same year.

The community celebrated the first, full Terrace season in 1929 — 90 years ago this year! It looked very different back then without its now iconic sunburst chairs. Back then, members and guests enjoyed this lakefront destination while sitting on hickory chairs and dining on hickory tables.

Memorial Union Terrace in 1929 (Photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

1930s:

Throughout the 1930s, we used many Terrace chair styles, from the first, wooden furniture to a springy, steel chair known as the “Deauville.” Finally, in the ‘30s, we debuted an early version of the stamped-metal sunburst chair that we know and love today. (Don’t know about the Terrace sunburst chairs? They’re kind of a big deal to people who love the Terrace and, sometimes, Madison, in general. They are symbols of summer in Madison.)

On some summer days in the ‘30s, the Wisconsin All-State Band gave concerts to the Terrace as part of the Union’s summer Terrace music series.

Toe-tapping good times continued on the Terrace thanks in part to the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD), which began in 1939. WUD is the Union’s student programming and leadership board for the Union. Most Terrace programming, today, is created by WUD’s talented student leaders.

The All-State Band on Memorial Union Terrace in 1931 (Photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

1940s:

With a desire to keep Terrace fun going during the winter, throughout the ‘40s, we held winter events on the Terrace. We blocked off the outdoor space and turned it into an expansive ice rink. Ice skating, sculpting and other fun-filled activities ensued. These events’ legacy continues on in a 21st century form with the Union’s Winter Carnival, with nearby Lake Mendota serving as an icy playground.

In addition to being a fun-filled destination, a historic moment also took place on the Terrace in November 1949, when nearly 4,000 people gathered there to hear Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru speak.


Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru speaking to an audience on the Terrace in 1949
(Photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

1950s:

In 1951, the Terrace served as the location for the Village Fair, featuring carnival games and caricatures.

Village Fair at the Terrace in 1951
(Photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

1960s:

The 1960s brought a change to the architecture of the Terrace; in 1964, the space’s flagstone surface was removed from the Terrace and replaced with concrete blocks.

Programming-wise, Terrace visitors welcomed many summer evenings with sing-alongs on the Terrace.

In 1967, the circus came to the Terrace, including a visit from elephants from the Circus World Museum.

1970s:

The colorful Terrace chairs almost met their end in the late 1970s when the manufacturer went out of business. But the Wisconsin Union Association (formerly the Memorial Union Building Association) purchased equipment to keep the chairs in production — crisis averted.

More fun ensued on the Terrace throughout the ‘70s, from square dancing to a Renaissance fair. We hosted the fair in 1976, during which “medieval” knights fought each other on the Terrace during well-choreographed shows.

1980s:

Beginning in 1981 and continuing to this day, Wisco Industries in Oregon, Wis., has made our iconic sunburst chairs. While the chairs have not changed much since the ‘70s — the architecture of the Terrace has.

Plans to revamp the Terrace were approved in 1985, and renovations began in 1987. Prior to this construction, much of the grassy area would not grow because too many people walked and sat on it, according to Ted Crabb, Wisconsin Union emeritus director.

The renovated Terrace reopened in 1987 and dramatically added space for the Terrace’s iconic chairs and tables, a retaining wall, low-rise steps and a dining option, called the Brat Stand.

To celebrate the renovations, Lake Mendota featured a 16-foot, paper mache fish, and we hosted a fireworks display, performances by musicians and dancers, and sailboat rides.

Brant Stand on the Terrace in 1989 (Photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

1990s:

In April 1991, Terrace-goers got a first-hand look as MTV visited UW to film segments of its program “Hot Seat,” featuring rock bands Nelson and Cinderella.

While this was certainly a fun moment for the community, WUD helped ensure summer-long entertainment in the ‘90s with free film showings and music on the Terrace. This legacy continues today with the music and film series known as Terrace After Dark.


Members of Nelson and Cinderella at the Terrace for MTV’s “Hot Seat” program. Seated from left are Matthew Nelson and Cinderella’s lead singer Tom Keifer. Standing behind them are Nelson’s brother, Gunnar, and Cinderella’s drummer, Fred Coury.
(Photo provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

2000s:

2004 featured the first-ever Madison World Music Festival. This festival incorporates world-renowned musicians and performers for the Madison community. Since then, we have held this celebration of cultures on the Terrace and the Willy Street Fair each fall.

2010s and today:

For the 2012 Terrace season, the Union featured “Mendota Blue” chairs to create awareness for the 2016 Memorial Union Reinvestment project. The 2016 renovation included expanded seating, more food options, shoreline restoration, an updated sound and lighting system, and increased accessibility.

In addition, beginning in 2016, we have invited the community to be part of an annual reopening of the Terrace. During the event, the community has helped bring the Terrace chairs back to the Terrace and celebrate the first day of Terrace season. The 2019 celebration included giving away Terrace swag to the first 200 people who brought back chairs and by randomly giving away Terrace good bags. Plus, we hosted a DJ performance and provided free popcorn and ice cream. Bucky also joined the festivities.

Patrons help distribute Terrace chairs during the 2018 “Bring Out the Chairs” event.

New memories are begging to be made at the Terrace. We invite you to come join us for the 2019 Terrace season! For all things Terrace, visit TerraceSummer.com.

Author: Katherine Kermgard

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