Going Down in History

Aug. 15, 2001

As demolition nears an end on the 50-year-old UA Student Union Memorial Building, we thought we would pass along some notes about the history of the place. Much of this information comes from the late Phyllis Ball, UA special collections librarian and author of "A Photographic History of the University of Arizona: 1885-1985."

The first mention of a union came to light during a Regents' meeting in October 1922 when the UA was given permission to raise construction funds. A March 21, 1923, Arizona Wildcat headline crowed "Student Union Building to be Erected on Campus: Building to be finished by next fall will have area for big ballroom."

The article went on to say that the new structure would include a basketball floor, a maple dance floor for 1,200, an auditorium for 2,400, and offices for student body organizations (including the student newspaper), plus "a social room, girls' dressing room and a reading room."

That fall, the Wildcat reported that UA officials had accepted plans for a student union. Another article in February 1924 placed the new structure about where it would actually be built.

These were wildly grandiose plans for a school with fewer than 1,500 students, something UA President Cloyd Marvin weighed his limited budget against while deciding whether to build a new union or a new library. The library (now the Arizona State Museum - North Building) won, and that was, more-or-less, the end of public discussion for several years.

In 1938 UA President Alfred Atkinson appointed the first committee to study the feasability of building a new union, but Tucson and Arizona suffered badly during the Great Depression and so did the state universities, and so nothing was done. A committee formed in 1940 also was unable to raise funds, in part because of the economy and also because the proposed union would replace Old Main, a line in the sand for many alumni. The onset of World War II shelved just about all new construction.

In 1945 Phoenix banker Roy Wayland headed a statewide fund raising campaign to raise the million or so dollars needed to begin. For students, the new building couldn't come soon enough. Wartime rationing limited menu choices in the Dining Hall (built in 1902), and small restaurants began springing up near campus to offer some variety. Like the current Union, the 1951 structure was built in phases to keep the old Dining Hall functioning as long as possible.

Plans to build the Union on the site of Old Main, condemned and abandoned between 1938 and 1942, were scrapped after the Navy poured $89,000 into repairing and turning it into the Naval Indoctrination Training School during the war, and another $20,000 in 1945 to turn it back into a functioning campus building.

The Student Union Memorial Building was finally dedicated in 1951 during UA President Richard A. Harvill's inauguration. The building was designed to be a memorial to members of the UA community who died during World War I and World War II, and later included plaques for Korea and Vietnam. Bas relief sculptures included the insignias of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, plus a controversial piece by an Arizona State College (now ASU) art professor Phillips Sanderson, who created the then-controversial sculptural mural of combat figures amid an abstract dove at the front entrance to memorialize "the turmoil and disillusionment of war."

The Student Union was renovated and expanded more than a dozen times during its lifespan, one of which incorporated part of the old Women's Building into the Gallagher Theatre.

James Macmillan, the original architect, has several other UA buildings to his credit, including the 1940 Douglas Mines Building just north of the Union; the 1948 Aeronautical Building, demolished for the new Union; the first Business and Public Administration Building, built in 1952 and now called Economics; the 1954 Bookstore, located west of the Student Union; and Coconino Hall (1954).

M.M. Sundt, the contractor for the first Student Union, has built more than 30 structures on campus, beginning in the mid 1930s, from the pre-Centennial Hall Main Auditorium to McKale Center.