Jay Platt had to reschedule the Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair this year. He’s held the sale at the Michigan Union for forty years, but this year his favorite May date was unavailable: the Union closed for an extended renovation at the end of April. After moving the event up to March this year, the grizzled owner of the West Side Book Shop says he may skip next year entirely.
The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor has met at the Union ever since the building opened in 1919, so long that it’s known as the “downtown” club. But in May, it moved to Weber’s Inn on the west side. Club administrator John White doesn’t know whether members will vote to return when the $85 million project at the Union is done.
Five restaurants and two stores within the building have closed; whether they come back “depends on where they are in their lease agreement,” says Susan Pile, senior director of the University Unions. And who knows what’ll happen to the plaque that declared the building is for “Michigan Men Everywhere”?
Kinesiology prof Marissa Pollick has been campaigning to get rid of that plaque for years. “It’s very insulting and dismissive of Michigan women,” she says. “You wouldn’t have [a plaque saying] ‘for white students everywhere!'”
The Michigan Union was founded in 1904 as a men’s social club, and for its first half-century, women had only limited access to its facilities. Yet the founders saw it as an egalitarian project–“an all-inclusive organization.” At the time, the university provided no housing and few social facilities, so most student activities revolved around fraternities and sororities, which prided themselves on their exclusivity. The Union, the founders declared, would be a gathering place for all U-M men.
By 1906 they’d produced a pamphlet, “The Plan and Purpose of the Michigan Union” that envisioned a large living room, a library, a billiards room, and a bowling alley, plus a hotel upstairs for alumni and guests. The projected cost: $1 million. The following year, the group bought U-M law prof Thomas Cooley’s former house on S. State, and a few years after that, they hired Chicago-based architects Irving and Allen Pond–Ann Arbor natives and U-M grads–to design the building.
After fundraising garnered $800,000 in pledges, they demolished Cooley’s house in 1916 and began construction. The outer shell was completed a year later, but when the United States joined the Great War, the building was temporarily repurposed as a barracks and mess hall for the 800 soldiers of the Student Army Training Corps.
The Union opened to students in 1919, though the reading room wasn’t yet complete and a planned swimming pool wouldn’t open until 1926. Two southern wings were added in 1936 and 1938 and a north wing in 1954.
For all those years, the students using the Union were almost entirely men. Women were admitted only with male escorts on weekends and for special occasions. They also had to use the north-facing side entrance, not the grand east-facing front doors on State St.
One freshman woman did stride boldly through the front door twice in 1932, dressed as a male reporter–but the second time, she was arrested for violating the city ordinance against “masquerading as a member of the opposite sex.” Interestingly, that law was never enforced against the Union’s own fundraising group, the Michigan Union Opera Company–whose performances featured men in drag.
When the Union doorman died in 1946, the directors hired no replacement, and with that the no-women-through-the-front-door policy ceased to be enforced. As then-Union president Thomas Leopold declared, “We want as many people as possible to use the Union facilities, through whatever door they prefer.” The male-escort requirement was dropped in 1956, except in the billiards room, where it lasted until 1968.
A separate-but-equal women’s social center, the Michigan League, had opened in 1929. But for many, exclusion from the Union stung. Though she’s too young to have experienced it firsthand, Pollick feels that history personally.
“I’ve fought for gender issues for years,” she says. “I’m also a Title Nine attorney, and this plaque has always bothered me. It was such a painful reminder of the gender restrictions and indignities my mom faced.” Her parents met at Michigan (Class of 1948), and “my mom always regretted that she didn’t speak up.
“When I knew renovation was about to happen, I contacted the regents and president and said, ‘Congratulations on the [building’s upcoming] centenary–and wouldn’t it be time to remove the plaque?’
“I didn’t hear back from the regents, but I heard back from President Schlissel immediately. He said my points are all valid and deserve redress. But I did not get a commitment of any kind from the director.”
“We’ve taken it down and packed it up,” Pile says of the plaque, which also announces the building’s dedication to former president James Burrill Angell. “There is a hundred years’ worth of stuff that needs to vacate the building,” explains Union director Amy White. “All those things are going into storage, and the Michigan Union Board of Representatives will over the next year be looking at which of the pieces come back.”
“The Union has a long history we have to grapple with,” says board chair Caroline Richburg, a rising senior with a double major in biomolecular science and anthropology. “The MUBR will come up with a very inclusive committee, a group drawn from across campus from students and alumni and professors. We will come up with criteria for art in the Union. I look forward to hearing a lot of points of view.”
“I used to work at the Union when I was a student here back in ‘sixty-five,” Jay Platt recalls. “I worked at the main desk. We sold cigarettes and magazines, and I used to work the switchboard–I got $1.25 an hour. [U-M president] Harlan Hatcher came over every Sunday morning for the Times for fifty cents.”
By then, the Union’s days as a social center were largely memories. Though all male students continued to be automatically enrolled as members, the vets who crowded campus after WWII and the Korean War showed less interest in student activities. And though John Kennedy proposed what would become the Peace Corps on its steps in 1960, that decade’s campus radicals disdained the aging men’s club as terminally unhip.
To stay afloat, the Union increasingly relied on profits from its 189-room hotel. But those, too, declined as newer alternatives opened around town. In 1979, the regents transferred control of the building from the Union board to the Office of Student Services. The hotel rooms were turned into student dorms and the ground floor into a food court, which proved an enduring success.
Compared to the current project, that was a relatively minor renovation. As it approaches its centenary next year, the Union is being rebuilt from the inside out.
The exterior will also remain much as it is. “There is not space or budget to add on,” says Pile. But the former women’s entrance will be completely redesigned.
“The north entrance currently receives about half of the building traffic,” says Amy White. “Currently the accessible ramp is around the side and a little hard to find and navigate. And when you come into the building, you’re welcomed with stairs. Being able to make that a fully accessible and welcoming entrance was a big goal. Everyone will enter in through the same sets of doors.”
“That part of the building was put on in the 1950s, and it feels like the 1950s,” says Pile. Taking their cues from the original architects, they’ll replace the featureless Modern facade with an archway. “The arch design as well as the blossom detail, the stained-glass windows, and the curvature of the windows is all signature Pond and Pond,” she says.
Much of the work will be invisible: because the building is so old, half the budget will go toward infrastructure. “There’s not a sprinkler system in the building,” says Pile. “We’re getting new heating and cooling systems. Right now some rooms can be really hot, and some rooms can be really cold. We’ve got pipes that are original to the building that have significantly deteriorated.”
Other updates, too, will be hard to spot. The polished hardwood trim, Pile says, will “be restored in many places and in some places put back.” But the way the space is used will change dramatically.
The rarely used courtyard will be enclosed to create “a great multipurpose space where we can set up booths for career fairs or do registration for conferences or student events that are in the building,” Pile says. “There might be programmatic things, too, everything from poetry slams to game watch parties.
“Surrounding it will be this highly involved interactive space for our student organizations that will overlook that space. That will add a lot of life to the building in places now that it just doesn’t exist.”
They’ve named the new space the IdeaHub. “It is a vision that came out of our many student interactions,” explains Pile. “They hear about our student organizations, and we have those offices tucked away on the fourth floor. Most are shared by three or four groups. The second floor is much more visible and offers opportunities for all 1,400 student organizations to use a space rather than a select eighty.”
That change means the end of the Union’s pool hall. “Part of the IdeaHub will be in what is the billiards room currently,” says Pile. “The billiards room has been an important part of the Michigan experience for a lot of alumni. But we’re hearing from students it’s empty.” Amy White says that it’s recently averaged fewer than six visitors an hour. The smaller Pendleton Room averaged sixty.
On the first floor, “the Willis Ward Lounge will expand south, and our office suite will become open lounge space,” says Amy White. “We don’t need administrators on the first floor,” says Pile. “We’ll be up on the third floor. And the information desk will move across the hall back to its original location.” There will still be eateries downstairs, though the details have yet to be worked out.
While the building is closed, many of the groups that formerly met at the Union will move to the League. “We’ll be hosting some of the career fairs,” says League director Xavier Wilson. “We’ll be doing tours and campus days and the blood drives. And student government will move over. We have only so much room, so we’re maximizing.”
The Rotarians could have gone to the League, too, but decided not to. “We meet Wednesdays at noon almost every week,” John White says. “We average about 110 Rotarians and maybe ten guests or visiting Rotarians.” That’s too many for the meeting rooms at the League but too few for its ballroom: “It’s too big, too expensive, and it does not have a good enough sound system,” White says. So they went to Weber’s instead. “The free parking will be nice,” he says.
Will they go back when the work is done? “I don’t know,” replies White. “We’ll take another vote. We could vote to stay” at Weber’s.
Pile says she hopes the Union will reopen early in 2020. “We’re trying to do this as fast and efficient as possible, but it’s a complicated project.”
Will Jay Platt’s Antiquarian Book Fair return when they’re done? “We’d love to have him come back,” says Pile.
Platt says he’d like that, too. “This is my forty-third year,” he says. “I’m gonna aim for fifty years.”
As for the “Michigan Men” plaque, Richburg says a decision will be made “hopefully before the building reopens.” But what that decision might be “only time will tell.”
From Calls & Letters, July 2018
To the Observer:
I have to dispute the details in one paragraph in the Union article by James Leonard [“Change Comes to the Michigan Union,” June.]. He said that the Union doorman whose main purpose was to keep women from using the front door was not replaced when he died in 1946. I was a freshman in 1949–50 when all freshman were required to take physical education classes throughout the year. I was in an “advanced” women’s swimming class which had permission to use the Union’s swimming pool because the mini pool in the then women’s Barbour Gymnasium was only about 3 feet deep. During that semester I clearly remember that there was always a uniformed older man who vigorously guarded the front door of the Union to keep women from using it. When my swimming class was over, I had very little time to dry off, get dressed and make it to my next class. So instead of using the side door which took longer, I used to wait until the guard’s back was turned and then dash out the front door and down the steps. He yelled after me every time I did it, but I kept on doing it!
So in 1949–50 there was still a uniformed doorman whose job it was to keep women from using the Union’s front door.
Will Hathaway also emailed to report that at the urging of his late uncle, Wystan Stevens, he bought two archival news photos documenting another violation of the front-door rule: “The 1932 photos show Marian Shepard, disguised in men’s clothes, just after she bluffed her way through the front door. She’s very dapper in a three-piece suit and hat, cigarette in hand.
“According to the captions on the photos, Shepard was trying to get a job on the staff at the Michigan Daily and the Daily’s editors dared her to first enter the Union through the front doors, presumably to prove herself. She succeeded but, in response, male students threatened to boycott her. The second time she attempted to enter through the front door, she was caught and ‘given a lecture by police.'”