Community reacts to exclusion of billiards hall in Union renovation
The Michigan Union has undergone many changes over the years. In 1919, when the Union first opened, it contained a bowling alley and a barbershop. In 1925, a swimming pool was installed. While these features came and went, the billiards and games hall remained mostly intact, with a few renovations here and there. However, with the rapidly approaching Union renovation, students and staff will have to bid the billiards hall farewell.
Union Director Amy White said the main purpose of the renovation is to update essential systems and functions to meet the needs of the community.
“When Irving and Allen Pond designed it in the 1900s, they had a very specific plan for how people might interact with the building and how spaces are able to used and to be felt by the students and by the community,” White said. “There are ways in which we, over the course of the last hundred years, have changed some of that.”
According to White and the renovation team, one of these changes is the relevance of the billiards hall. While it once may have been the center of student life, White said the hall currently stays mostly unused.
“Looking at 2018 and beyond, thinking, what are student needs these days?” White said. “What we know about students in 2018, the recreational needs of U-M students, we have seen decreasing use in the billiards room over time and that is important.”
Engineering junior Jason Comstock, co-president of Building a Better Michigan, said his club helped identify this lack of use and found a more practical way to utilize the space. They discovered the University’s current facilities couldn’t keep up with the needs of the over 1,600 student organizations on campus. To replace the billiards hall, they came up with the idea of an Idea Hub.
“That room is going to serve as a collaboration space solely dedicated to student orgs on campus,” Comstock said. “It’s not intended to be a study space; it’s supposed to be loud and interactive. It also allows new students who are trying to be more involved on campus to walk into the space and become introduced to all these different organizations.”
Susan Pile, senior director of the University Unions, wrote in an email interview that with BBM’s input, they recognized the necessity of the Idea Hub after thorough data-gathering.
“We spent a year gathering feedback from students, alumni, staff, faculty, Union users, etc regarding the role of the Michigan Union and what role it should play,” Pile wrote. “We did many focus groups, town hall meetings, met with many student organizations and student employees, campus wide survey, intercept interviews, etc. It became clear that better, more visible student involvement space was a critical need and an important role for the Union.”
Still, there are people who have derived great enjoyment from the billiards hall. Clarence Leung, a 2017 University alum and a member of the Billiards Club, joined the club in the fall of his junior year and fell in love with the sport.
“When I first started I just wanted something to take my mind off of things,” Leung said. “Initially that is what it was. The only experience I had before was playing pool at bars with friends. Afterwards, I started playing with them, I started getting competitive, and I started to work here. I started playing more and fell into the sport.”
Leung has talked to alumni about their treasured memories playing pool in the Union, examined signed photos of football players hanging on the hall’s walls and found enjoyment in observing the different pool players during his shifts. He said he’s sad to see the billiards hall go.
“It’s very bittersweet,” Leung said. “I’m happy the Union is getting renovated, but at the same time, I’m sad because there’s so much history in this room. All of it’s going to be gone.”
Engineering senior Jacob Lutz, co-president of the Billiards Club, also expressed his appreciation for the billiards hall. Though, during his time here, he has noted the under-utilization of the hall. For this reason, and because he felt protesting would have no effect, the Billiards Club didn’t challenge the renovation team’s decision.
“We never approached them because the decision was already made and anything we do would not change the fact,” Lutz said. “So it is what it is.”
White acknowledged the sadness surrounding the billiard hall’s removal, but she also urged people to recognize this as a sign of the changing times.
“Over the course of a hundred years, it’s easy to forget that the program of the facility changes with needs,” White said. “The loss of the billiards room is a loss. But it is similar to losses in other ways in the Union, and it is part of the evolution of the building that fits the needs of today’s students.”
Even though the Union is adapting to the current times and needs, Leung hopes the University will keep the history of the billiards hall alive.
“There’s a lot of other history they should keep in mind,” Leung said. “This room in particular, because of how billiards as a sport has changed, they should keep some of it somewhere.”