The History of the UC

Student Union

In 1927, Dr. J. P. Rowe, the head of the Geology Department, visited Cornell University. He was inspired by their students’ building and envisioned a “Union Hall” at UM as a way to promote school spirit. This would prove to be easier said than done. Twenty-two years of numerous setbacks, much debate and dedicated effort followed before the first student union building at UM would open to student use in 1935.

In an attempt to arouse student interest, ASUM President Mike Thomas and Fred Ironsides, a fellow student, staged a mock boxing match in front of Main Hall. Ironsides was initially opposed to the idea, but prior to the match in private meetings with Thomas, had changed his mind. The “fight” was held to sway campus opinion in favor of a student union. As a result of growing interest, the Central Board (later known as ASUM) decided on a fee increase from $5.50 to $7.50 per year to aid construction. Plans were then submitted to the State Board of Education for approval.

In 1929, with the crash of the Stock Market and the onset of the Depression, building plans stagnated. The dream, however, nurtured by dedicated students and faculty, remained very much alive. A 1,500 seat auditorium, dance floor, bowling alley, separate lounges for men and women, cafeteria, ASUM offices, and sound proof music practice rooms were suggested as features for the new student union. The cost of such a building was estimated at $225,000.

In 1930, ASUM President Gordon Rognlien and other members of the building committee investigated student union buildings at universities in California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Michigan and Missouri. Questionnaires as to what features students might find desirable in their new student union were distributed. Features included a store, auditorium, ballroom, barber shop, faculty room, headquarters for various organizations and a trophy room. Write-in suggestions from students included a music room, rifle gallery, public stenographer, study rooms, shoe shining parlor, Little Theatre, radio station, telephone booths and a soda fountain.

Funding was established when, in October 1933, building committee members Howard Toole, S.J. Coffee, L.A. Bunge and UM President Clapp applied for a $300,000 loan to the state National Recovery Administration committee. Less than one month later, on November 7, news of approval from the Public Works Administration arrived by telegram. Fall Quarter of 1934 was announced as the official opening date for the new student union building.

A mere ten days later enthusiasm about the project had soured. The Kaimin reported, “Rumors, contradictions, accusations, objections and suggestions are flying thick and fast among State University students as they argue over the now vague and muddled plans for the construction of the proposed $300,000 student union building which is to be erected on a still undecided site sometime next year.” It became evident that the auditorium would require half of the available funds. Students were asked to decide whether they would prefer an auditorium or union building since it seemed they could not afford both. One student complained that the student union part of the building would look like a “shed tacked on to a house,” if the plan were to go forward for both together.

In February, radically changed blueprints of the building were submitted to Washington, D.C. for final approval. The plans included tentative suggestions for a game room, offices, storage room, kitchen, book store, and committee rooms on the ground floor. A central lounge would separate men’s and women’s lounges on the second floor and the third floor would have a large ballroom with two smaller dance floors.

Contracts for the sale of bonds to the federal government were authorized by a special meeting of the State Board of Education in Helena and rushed to Washington, D.C. for the approval of the New York legal firm, Masslick and Mitchell. In May 1934, the project was given the sanction of the Montana Supreme Court. The State Board of Education was authorized to erect the structure with a $240,000 loan and a $60,000 grant from the Public Works Administration. An annual fee of $5 charged to students would exempt the state from debt.

Finally, on July 24, 1934, President Charles H. Clapp turned the first shovel of ground for the excavation of the new building. Clapp is quoted at the dedication ceremonies as saying, “The only real education, the only education of value, is self education. Because of this, most students are probably more greatly influenced by informal associations with fellow students and faculty members and friends than by their formal instruction.” Unfortunately, President Clapp became ill and passed away before he could see the completion of the building.

In May of 1935, Central Board adopted a resolution naming the new student union building “Memorial Hall” with intentions of a formal dedication to the late President Clapp some time in the future. No such action was taken. Dr. Clapp had often joked, "Thank God, no building will ever carry my name." From then on, the building was simply known as the Student Union Building.

On November 11, 1935, the Student Union Building opened with a dedication ceremony in the Gold Room, the largest of three ballrooms that occupied the third floor. Governor Frank H. Cooney accepted the building from the acting state WPA Administrator, V. H. Walsh, who then presented it to Wallace Brennan, the representative from the State Board of Education, who in turn gave it to the students.

At the time, the Student Union Building was the largest structure on the campus, surpassing the library by 30 feet in width and 10 feet in height. The theater was the largest in Missoula, occupying one-third of the building. With 1,480 seats it was large enough for the entire student body. It was also the first college structure to be completed under the Public Works Administration plan.

The building was open seven days a week until 10:30 p.m. Building hours were extended until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Although the lounges would become a popular gathering place for students, their opening was delayed for several weeks after the official building opening pending the arrival of fifty ashtrays. The board game Monopoly was purchased for the use of students in the lounge.

During the first three quarters of the 1936-1937 academic year, 580 scheduled events took place in the meeting rooms, ballrooms and theater. In 1939, a Legislative sub-committee inquiring into university affairs was “decidedly impressed with the value of the Student Union Building as a recreational and social center… The committee members remarked on the ‘zip and spirit’ of the student body.”

Transition to The MSU Lodge

By 1946, with enrollment at record high levels and the Student Union temporarily approved to accommodate classes, the need for a new facility was undeniable. The two gymnasiums were being used as sleeping quarters for veteran students. The auditorium was viewed as an ideal space to accommodate record enrollment in survey courses such as social science and humanities. Members of a special committee met to discuss “ways and means of alleviating the present overcrowded conditions existing in the Student Union building.” In response, University President James A. McCain called together a committee to discuss the feasibility of constructing a new union. The cost of a new building was estimated at $600,000.

Proposals of a new facility met with significant resistance from students who felt that the money could be used instead for other badly needed university buildings. Opinions recorded in the Kaimin both for and against a new facility included the following:

Deanne Parmeter argued for a new building; “We do need classrooms, but… the money for the union is from an entirely different source.”

...and this nugget from Bob Petty, “When the postwar influx of students tapers off the student body is apt to find an over elaborate Student Union on their hands which would be impossible to pay for. Besides I’m a realist and what my children will have is of little interest to me.”

A poll from October 1947 revealed that three out of five students favored a new union. Students voted one week later to raise student fees. The vote also allowed the executive committee, UM President McCain and the State Board of Education the right to go ahead with further study, which was expected to take another two years. Then, in December, because of high building costs and interest rates, the construction of any buildings which required bond issues was postponed by the State Board of Education for one year. This would prove to be more of a set-back than anyone could have imagined.

Nearly four years passed with no mention of a new student union. Finally, in January 1953, UM President Carl McFarland advocated the construction of a new building that would house both the proposed Student Union and Field House in the same structure. Because building funds were limited, one advantage of the proposed merger was that expanding the Field House to include the Student Union would be cheaper than a separate facility for each. According to the most important of three versions of the proposal, the Student Union would be situated under the auditorium balcony.

The campus community was quick to respond with a multitude of questions and concerns regarding the merger. If the two buildings were merged, would students retain ownership of the Student Union? Would the space available in the Field House be desirable, or even functional? Would the Field House and Student Union be managed as one entity or separately? What were the alternatives? With no resolution in sight, the Student Union Executive Committee turned to the professional advice of Student Union planning consultant Porter Butts.

In a 14-page letter to the committee from February 1953, Butts denounced the merger as impractical. He explained that, “While a substantial amount of space might be gained at much less cost through an addition to the basic contract for the Field House, I believe the University would find in the end that it had an unsatisfactory Union.” He advised that the utility of the building should always be considered before the cost.

An outside opinion seemed to be just what the doctor ordered; the merger was emphatically rejected by the New Student Union and Executive Committees one week after receipt of Butts’ letter.

In spite of the rejection of the merger, the Executive Committee continued to develop floor plans and secure funding for the building. In the mean time, the New Student Union committee discussed ideas for improving the current facility. Among a list of reasons for students’ reluctance to use the building were, “old fashioned furniture, drab colors, and bad lighting and ventilation.” Someone jokingly suggested that the present facility be renamed the Temporary Union Building- or the TUB.

Students voted in May 1953 to raise fees to $3.33 per quarter and President McFarland authorized preliminary plans and sketches of a new Student Union. Peder Hoiness, chairman of the New Student Union Committee, encouraged freshman to take an active role in working toward the completion of the building as they would be the ones to benefit from it.

On October 27, 1953, President McFarland announced that a new food service building to supply kitchen and dining services for Craig Hall would be built in 1954. Funds for the building were supplied through a loan from the federal government’s Housing and Home Finance agency as part of the same project as Craig Hall, which had just been built one year earlier. The next day, the Student Union Executive Board recommended to Central Board that the proposed student union be added to the “Commons” as a 16,000 square foot wing at a cost of $200,000.

The decision had to be made quickly because construction of the Commons had been postponed. Perhaps in recognition of a limited window of opportunity, Central Board unanimously accepted the newest building proposal only two days after President McFarland officially announced construction of the Commons.

Students were open to discussion of a new Student Union as long as they were allowed to be a part of the decision making process. They were outraged, however, at what they saw as University authorities usurping the student’s right to voice an opinion. They voiced their opinions in no uncertain terms. In a letter to the Kaimin, C.J. Hansen wrote, “MSU’s student body acted yesterday like its lethargic carcass had been dropped into a tub of ice water.” The writer concluded his letter by voicing an opinion that was likely shared by many students; “I’m not opposed to building it [the Student Union], but only after full debate and democratic approval. What I resent is this hasty attempt to effect (sic) a shotgun marriage, especially when the bride isn’t even pregnant.”

In response to outcries about lack of concern for student opinion, Central Board tentatively scheduled a vote on the Commons proposal for November 13. Before agreeing to the vote, members voted unanimously to contact three student union consultants to discuss the proposal with the board and the student body. The Union experts favored the proposed merger because the building location would make it accessible to students on their way to classes.

The weeks of heated discussion, numerous meetings and intense scrutiny climaxed when students voted 492 to 232 in favor of the merger. The total cost of the Student Union – Commons was $555,074. The building was projected to cover 22,500 square feet and would be constructed with five floors, “through the use of modern ‘half-level’ architecture.”