Kathy and I took in the open house at the newly renovated Michigan Union today. Here are my impressions:
The Michigan Union is my favorite building on campus, more than the Law Quad or even Michigan Stadium. Standing tall (‘though only 4 stories) at the base of south University on State, this 1919 structure of brick, stone, and stained glass resembles a small cathedral to secular scholarship, which it is. My generation reveres it for being the platform for JFK’s first description of the Peace Corps at 2 A.M. when he came to Ann Arbor a month before being elected 35th president. Nine years later they let co-eds come upstairs to the Union’s pool halls for the first time. I’ve lounged, eaten, studied, slept and shopped in that building, proudly showing it off to out of towners. Shopping at the now defunct University Cellars in the Union’s basement – distinguished from the town’s other local bookstores by being entirely student-run – I did well on deals for texts, course supplies, and $3.25 records. I even worked there for a while my senior year. Workers at the U Cellar were represented starting in 1979 (4 years after I’d gone) by Local 660 of the Industrial Workers of the World; at the time, the union local was the largest of the Wobblies, representing 10% of total union membership worldwide. The place ceased operation in 1987. The Union was always worth a stop on a campus amble, particularly when it included the sublime pleasure understood only by men of relieving myself into the old all-the-way-to-the-floor urinals.
In July 2016, the Regents authorized $85.2 million to renovate the place. Just today, enough work had been done to tear down the barriers and open the place up to the public. Kathy and I stopped by to take a look. Walking in, after we passed a crowd doing something rhythmic, we saw the first level is much more open. The beautiful if unnamed “study room” to the right is unchanged, but to the left are two large lounging areas separated by a glass see-through fireplace (gas-fired, unlike the rest of the old Union’s fireplaces). The airy courtyard, which used to be an outdoors space, is now under a glass dome. The University Club is still closed, but a banner hanging from its arch advertises for workers at the Pantera’s that will exist there. The second floor is a warren of meeting rooms, “IdeaSpaces”, 2 “Movement rooms”, ready for any physical activity that only requires a wooden floor and a mirror, and the untouched spaces of the Pendleton Room and renamed Rogel Ballroom, another consequence of the Rogel family’s $188.5 million gifts. Some nice little touches are here, like surrounding the new drinking fountain/water bottle filling installations with Motawi tile. My check into the men’s room found that the old urinals had unfortunately not been restored, but mine did sport a shiny new tampon dispenser.
The third floor houses the expanding student government bureaucracy: Center for Campus Involvement, Debate, Student Organization Accounts Service, Spectrum Center, Multi-Ethnic Affairs Center, Central Student Government, University Unions Administration, Conference & Events Services, and Student Life Administration. By this level, the architects had given up on adding anything new, different, or interesting, so the young apparatchiks will not be distracted from their duties.
The fourth floor is given over to needs of mind and soul. Counseling and Psychological Services is there, as well as Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness. The open door of the Wellness Center beckons with 2 large massage chairs. There’s a small chapel (I mean “Reflection Room”) whose four walls bear no trace of cross or star, but did include three Muslim women on their knees praying away when we looked in. Open unmarked rooms abound, so emerging needs will have places to be addressed
Outside the Barnes and Noble in the basement, across from the soon-to-be open Taco Bell (which will join eateries Subway, Mama DeLuca,’s, MI Burger, Panda Express, and Blue Market down there), were the tables of PNC bank and the UoM Credit Union, offering goodies to would-be customers. Kathy got us inside to get her specially priced wolverine squishy. Looking past all the rather lame Michigan wear and other paraphernalia, we did finally find two tables of actual books, one containing Michigan sports books, including 14 titles that I do not yet own, and the other a collection of lefty self-help and biography titles. Down the hall was the site of Computer Showcase, which through the years has offered great deals to faculty and staff.
We took one last trek up to the main floor, seeing again the long line of students stretching out to enter the “study room”. The guide from the Events Staff showed us what was going on. Wolverine Press, which publishes academic material, had set up a small but genuine printing press . Its output today was a lovely line drawing of the Union. To claim one’s own copy, each student had to select one of three colors blank stock and present it to the pressman, then claiming the finished product. It was heartening to see the young so enthralled by such old fashioned technology, perhaps fitting in that they were drinking up the special atmosphere of this very old fashioned building that was now theirs in which to roam.
So back down the stairs we went, noting the new wheelchair ramp that had been worked in, exiting north and lower, on to the drive that passes by the Admin building and West Quad’s Chicago House (where I’d lived my first 2 years). Set we were to venture up Maynard, past the backsides of LS&A, Barbour, Kelsey Museum and the stone Congregational Church where Kathy and I were married in October ’86. Hopcat was our destination, but our hearts leapt much before that when we saw that the 2 chain link fences which had engulfed the Cube in the summer during the LS&A and Union renovations had been torn down and the Cube was free again. We took our turns spinning, of course. Our hearts were light as we traipsed on to Hopcat.
Hail to the Victors!