The History of the UC
Construction of the $4.3 million UC was completed and it opened to student use on January 6th, 1969. The grand opening ceremonies took place on February 7th and included speeches from Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, Montana Governor Forrest Anderson, UM President Robert Pantzer and ASUM President Ed Leary. Neil Diamond was scheduled to appear in concert on February 9th. Unfortunately, he canceled the show due to illness and the ceremonies were concluded with a concert by the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Initially the University Center was planned as three separate buildings joined by a courtyard. The idea was perhaps developed as a reaction to the dysfunctional use of space in the Lodge. Another source of inspiration was the newly developed mall concept, where several vendors were connected by a shared space, but maintained their individuality. Separating programming, activities and services into distinct areas accomplished the dual goals of avoiding long corridors and a maze-like interior while providing tenants the opportunity to spread out.
The contractors realized very quickly that cold Hellgate winds and drifting snow would make the courtyard highly impractical for most of the year. The three buildings were then enclosed as one. The courtyard became an atrium extending up through the middle to the roof. Whether it came about by accident or force of requirement, the atrium concept was at the cutting edge of architectural innovation. It became a very popular model that is still used today.
The planters in the atrium were originally landscaped with plants indigenous to Montana and other temperate plants. The plants died shortly after their first year because in the temperature controlled environment the cold period they needed for their buds to break dormancy never came. Between 1971 and 1972, a change to the interior plants was made. Plants from more tropical climates replaced those plants which had died. Many of the tropical plants, including the now three-story tall Ficus nitida (Laurel-leaf fig tree), were donated to the UC by the University of Texas. When the tree was planted in 1972, it stood only 8 feet tall. In 2000, the Association of College Unions International featured the UC as one of it 17 top unions, chosen for the tropical garden atrium.
For the first nine months that the University Center was open, there were no locks on the doors. However, in November of 1969, Director Ray Chapman ordered $4,000 worth of locks to be placed on the building over the winter break, effectively ending the UC’s 24-hour service. Chapman explained that although a small number of students were in the building in the early hours of the morning, staying open was not cost-effective.
The University Center struggled financially for the first several years. The UC operated at a deficit until September of 1973 when the $117,000 budget deficit was balanced for the first time. Director Ray Chapman was cautiously optimistic about maintaining that balance. In an attempt to establish other sources of revenue, the UC considered getting a liquor license, and hired a law firm to investigate the legality of liquor sales on a college campus. Although state law prohibited a pub, students were optimistic that the legislature could change the law if properly pressured. The legislature did consider a bill allowing the sale of liquor on campus, which Montana student lobbyist Tom Behan said enjoyed wide public support, not just student support. In the end, however, the bill was defeated and the proposed pub never opened.
Students breathed a little easier in January 1977, when the Student Union Board banned smoking in the UC lounge. Many non-smokers had been driven away from the Copper Commons because of the smoke, and the Student Union Board felt obligated to provide them with a smoke-free place to eat, study and hang out. (The rest of the UC went smoke-free in 1993.)
When the University Center opened there was a bowling alley on the first floor in what is now Campus Court. The mezzanine level where the Administrative offices are currently located was built as the control room. The control room attendant would have been able to watch over not only bowlers, but also the activities in the Game Room. At the time, the Game Room occupied the west side of the second floor.
The bowling alley never made enough money to cover the cost of operation and in 1984, it was removed. The space remained vacant for several years. UC Director Ray Chapman recognized that the space could better serve students’ needs as well as generate additional revenue to maintain the UC. In 1988 the former bowling alley was renovated to provide space for new and existing services. Thus, Campus Court was born. Temptations Frozen Yogurt, Rockin Rudy’s and Travel Connection had retail space.
On the second floor from the present day location of the Game Room to the west wall was originally the Gold Oak dining room. In the late sixties, strategists anticipated a huge population boom in the northwest. For this reason, UM President McCain planned the construction of three high-rise dormitories on the east side of campus. The Gold Oak dining room was to serve as a contract dining location for these 1200 residents. The anticipated population increase never happened, only Aber Hall was built and the University Center was left with a large, inefficient dining room space. It was, however, used as a cafeteria until 1986.
The area which currently houses the Student Organizations and Student Involvement & Leadership Development was a student lounge complete with a sunken fireplace in front of what is now conference room 207. The KBGA offices were originally home to the Art Gallery. The corner offices, which are now the Women’s Center and Marketing offices, were used as music listening rooms.
When the UC was built, there was no access to the third floor from inside the building. Therefore, in order to access the ballroom or meeting rooms on the third floor, one had to go outside and up. There were also some major safety issues which prompted other major renovations in the UC. Among them were faulty fire alarms and an inefficient sprinkler system. One of the biggest problems throughout the building was asbestos. A popular sealing treatment for pretty much everything because of its resistance to heat, electricity and chemical damage as well as acoustic properties and tensile strength, asbestos had been used on nearly every surface in the UC. In the late 70’s several class action lawsuits were filed against asbestos producing companies, which garnered national attention about the serious health threat posed by asbestos. Over the course of three renovations, starting in the eighties and continuing to the year 2000, the UC painstakingly gutted the building and removed the asbestos.
The demolition required for the asbestos removal provided a perfect opportunity to renovate the building. Dining Services revamped their kitchen facility, the Bookstore was able to expand, and internal stairs to the third floor were built. A glass corridor that separated the third floor foyer from the atrium was removed, the Theater was built where the meeting rooms had been and new meeting rooms were built on the east end of the third floor.
Last year there were roughly 1.6 million visitors and just over 7,500 events scheduled throughout the building.