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Wisconsin Union History

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Building the Wisconsin Union Foundation with Stone, Steel and Dreams

University of Wisconsin-Madison President Charles Van Hise introduced plans for a union on campus in 1904. President Van Hise believed that such an organization would enrich “the communal life of instructors and students in work, in play, and in social relations.” In 1907, the Wisconsin Union was formed to serve as the all-campus programming board, and construction of our first building, known as the Memorial Union, began in 1925.

Memorial Union opened its doors on Oct. 5, 1928. The now famous Memorial Union Terrace also opened that same year.

At the opening ceremony of Memorial Union, UW-Madison President Glenn Frank stated, “The Union is a living room, which converts the university from a house of learning into a home of learning.”

The day our organization began marked the beginning of a new story at the University of Wisconsin, one filled with opportunities to make connections, discover and reignite passions, and serve as community leaders.

The Union Becomes a Hub for Discussion, Arts and Recreation

Under the Union’s first director, Porter Butts, the Union became a home of learning and service with the establishment of numerous programs including the outdoor recreation program called the Wisconsin Hoofers, the Wisconsin Union Theater, and numerous student-led programming committees, such as the Wisconsin Union Directorate Art Committee. Memorial Union also became home to the first art gallery in an American college union.

In 1935, the university acknowledged the Union’s vast opportunities for learning, recreation and service with the designation of the Wisconsin Union as the university’s Division of Social Education, a division dedicated to providing students with opportunities to contribute to their community through service.

Our organization continued to strengthen the Union’s role as a campus social and learning hub in the years to follow with historic theater performances, thought-provoking art exhibits and more.

Maintaining the Heart of Campus for Future Generations

Our buildings have been a campus living room for generations of students, staff, faculty and members who have come to relax, spend time with friends, engage with the community, and learn more about their places as citizens of the world. Our presence on campus has grown since the Union’s beginning with the establishment of Union South and satellite dining locations. Together, Union South and Memorial Union makeup the heart and soul of the UW-Madison campus. Far more than brick and mortar, these buildings are composed of memories and learning and service opportunities.

Change is an ever constant condition for us at the Union as our organization and buildings evolve to meet the needs of students, staff, faculty and members. As frequent as change is, our dedication to the community has and will remain ever constant. Today and always, we are honored to help make lifetime connections possible on campus. We hope to see you soon in your campus living room.

Storyteller Series History Videos

Former Union Director, Ted Crabb, and current Union Director, Mark Guthier, got together to reminisce about their favorite Union moments.  This five-part series explores the origins of the Union's Winter Carnival, the Magic of the Terrace, what goes on behind the scenes, the students who have always led the Union's events & activities programming, and more.