Hustled Out: Union renovations to strip away 97 years of pool hall history
The room is a labyrinth of ancient tables, antiques still in use. Above each one, fluorescent lights puncture maize and blue stained glass to reflect off the phenolic resin balls. Blue cue chalk stains the hands of the players and permeates the air to create a haze. Chatter is drowned out by the smack of balls. The archaic space heaters moan and the greats who came before us stand watch, framed in timeless wood, nailed to the walls. The scratches and tears in the 16 nine-foot Brunswick tables tell a story longer than most at the University of Michigan have been alive.
Few people know that when the Michigan Union was erected in 1919, it boasted a bowling alley, bar, swimming pool, barber shop, hotel rooms and much more. Over the century since, these amenities have slowly been replaced by a computer lab, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, fast food chains and other facilities that fill today’s Union. However, one room on the second floor remains virtually untouched, frozen in time and displaying the Union’s winding story. As this academic year ends, so too will the lingering life of the historic billiards hall.
I spent hours every week –– probably every day –– in this room my freshman year. It is where I would unwind after a long day and where I would bring people to understand me a bit more. The green-felted nine-foot Brunswick tables put the ratty seven-footer my dad taught me to play on to shame. This is my refuge, my paradise and my home.
It wasn’t long before I was on the club pool team. Yes, U-M has a team. In fact, U-M hosts the largest college pool tournament in the country, the University of Michigan Team Pool Championships. My freshman year, the UMTPC was the weekend of Halloween. While my fraternity brothers were doing what they do, I was locked in a heated game of nine-ball until midnight against a couple of students from Carnegie Mellon University. I lost, we shook hands and they asked me where the parties were.
That tournament is held every year, and it’s bliss for those of us who crave the intensity of calmly tapping safety shots for two hours patiently awaiting a chance to run the table in one foul devastating swoop.
OK, so it’s not football, but what pool lacks in aggression and physicality, it makes up for tenfold in strategy and tact. Though far and few in between, there is a network of individuals on campus who don’t just love billiards but love the billiards hall. That’s why I question the Union renovations slated to begin this April, which will not only erase the pool hall entirely but also devastate the community surrounding it.
When the Union closes for renovations this spring, the University will sink more than $85 million into the project over two years. In planning the new and hopefully improved Union, the University conducted surveys, town halls, intercept interviews and more to gauge campus and alumni opinion on what the Union should be. In total, more than 350 students, 500 alumni and almost 200 staff offered input.
Driven by the results of those outreach efforts, the administration is seeking to expand space for student organizations in the Union, said Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services, who has been active in planning the renovations. The University currently boasts over 1,500 student organizations, but fewer than 80 have office space, all of which is located on the third and fourth floors of the Union.
While creating office space for student organizations, the renovations will expand Counseling and Psychological Services and move some administrative offices to the third and fourth floors. The student org offices will move to the “IdeaHub,” a planned co-working space that will be available to all 1500 student organizations. However, if demand is high, space may become reservation-only.
What is certain is that the IdeaHub will take over the space that has been the billiards hall for 97 years, which has failed to turn a profit in the past decade according to Pile.
“I think folks recognize that we are trying to create a much more inclusive kind of space for student organizations,” Pile said. “We are going to maintain the historical details of the space and we will tell the story of the billiards room in the space to honor that legacy.”
The concept behind the IdeaHub originated in 2011 from the student-run Building a Better Michigan, formed by the Michigan Union Board of Representatives to advocate for improvements to the Union. BBM has significantly contributed to the Union renovation process, communicating directly with the project’s architects.
“One thing that BBM really does is it helps keep the renovations in a student-led perspective because the University would not exist had it not been for students here,” LSA junior Jazz Teste said, a co-president of BBM.
In 2013, members of BBM spoke before the Board of Regents, claiming to represent all 17,000 LSA students despite being unelected. The Regents then voted to add a semesterly $65 “University Unions and Recreational Sports facility improvement fee” onto the tuition and fees of students to go towards renovating campus facilities, formally putting the gears in motion for the Union overhaul.
“I do regret having to lose the billiards room because it is a gorgeous and iconic place in the Union. However, student leisure activities have changed over the past couple decades,” Teste said.
Teste said it’s unfair for the University to pick and choose which student groups receive the limited office space, and reiterated the billiards hall has been unprofitable. The IdeaHub will eliminate the need to parcel out space among eager student organizations.
“It would come down to evaluating them, which we currently do, but how do you measure someone’s passion over another?” she asked.
Being that it is precisely the administration’s job with these renovations, I put the question to those who care most about the billiards hall.
“This place for me was one of my favorite places on campus. It’s where I spent most of my free time. I fell in love with pool and met a lot of really cool people here,” Greg Webster said, who graduated from LSA in 2016.
“I met my girlfriend here,” he added with a bashful smile.
Webster is a self-proclaimed follower of “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski,” though he’s replaced The Dude’s passion for bowling with that of pool. His long blonde hair and signature goatee are a testament to his aesthetic, even if the Union doesn’t allow White Russian cocktails. Webster can be found in the pool hall almost everyday. He is one of the first people I met at the University. In my freshman year, he convinced me to try out for the team.
“It is what it is. I’ve kind of accepted the fact that it’s going to be removed from the building … They’re already looking to sell everything,” he said in classic “Dude-esque” fashion.
According to Pile, the University will seek out other homes on campus for the tables before trying to sell them off.
Webster understands the hall has been unprofitable for at least a decade, but he believes there’s value in the room that the administration fails to see.
“If you come in here during the day, you see people from all over the world coming to play and you hear people speaking all types of languages … Most of my friends who I spend hours a week playing pool with are from Asia. I’ve even learned some Chinese. I could go to a pool hall in China and be able to speak to them a bit,” he explained.
Webster was speaking not just about the pool hall, but also to a much broader global trend. While the once-hugely popular game of billiards has steadily declined in the United States, the sport has taken off throughout Asia, particularly China. At the turn of the 20th century, New Yorkers enjoyed more than 4,000 billiards rooms. Today, there are fewer than 30.
Shanghai was home to 200 billiards clubs in 2008, a number that has since skyrocketed to 1,500. Pool academies have been established in major cities throughout Asia and today, six of the top 10 global pool players are from East or Southeast Asia, according to the World Pool-Billiard Association.
“(The University) is trying to create all these ‘global citizens,’ but then they get rid of every sport that’s not ‘American,’” Webster said. “This is where you’re able to connect with people who you wouldn’t normally connect with through this shared interest in pool. This is where our cultures meet and we’re able to bond over it.”
Mengyang Zhang, who graduated last fall from the School of Engineering, echoed that point. Zhang hails from the province of Shanxi in China, and transferred to the University three years ago from North Carolina State University. Discovering the pool hall his first week on campus, the tight-knit community helped him adjust.
Zhang went on to represent the University at the UMTPC for three consecutive years, also competing every year to qualify for the Association of College Unions International Collegiate 9-Ball Championship. As a founding member of ACUI, the University has hosted their billiards tournaments dozens of times, and this past summer they did so again, knowing it would be the last in Ann Arbor. Zhang placed in the top 16, but his favorite part of the game is the relationships.
“Pool is a common interest for everyone who comes here, so from the pool, we then start talking about life and get to know each other, different lifestyles and cultures. It’s the start of the conversation,” he said over a game of eight ball.
The University’s billiards club is the first club Zhang joined on campus and three years later, he still attends almost every weekly meeting, loosely defining the term “meeting.” Members of the billiards club convene every Friday evening in the hall for a tournament. The winner gets a free week of pool. Though Zhang said he only competes to win when he is feeling really good, he enjoys being with all of his friends and afterward, they’ll go out for dinner or a drink.
“If it’s possible, I definitely want this pool hall to be kept. All my memories, all the people I know, it all started here. Even if they just move some to another room, if I see one of the tables I can pick up the memories maybe,” he said. “This is where all my memories are. There’s a story here.”
The billiards hall has welcomed numerous professionals over the years, including Hall of Famer Nick Varner, and the legendary Mike Massey. But perhaps today’s most famous patron of the pool hall is Betsy Sundholm, manager of the Student Organization Resource Center. Sundholm came to the University as a freshman and hasn’t left since. She became a full-time employee of the Union in 1996. Not only is she friendly with every regular, student and non-student alike, but she has also created a huge network across the country of collegiate pool players through her masterminding of the UMTPC.
“I have so many memories of the billiards room. It has played such a big role in the person that I am. I got a job there as an 18-year-old kid and now I’m well into my forties,” she said nostalgically. “I met my partner of 27 years there ... he taught a pool class and I was working behind the desk. He was one of the best players in town and I had a crush on him.”
Sundholm struggled to recall other schools with comparable billiards halls, adding that some schools without any tables on campus have a flourishing billiards community, though they face massive hurdles.
“(Students from other schools) come here and this is like Disney World to them,” she added.
One of Sundholm’s favorite memories of the pool hall is when one of the most recognizable faces of professional pool, Jeanette Lee or the “Black Widow,” came to play a few racks in 1998. The billiards room partnered with the Korean Student Association to bring Lee, a Korean-American, to campus.
When it comes to the pool hall closing, Sundholm has to separate her professional duty from personal feelings. Pile, her boss, sat in on our interview, perhaps to make sure she did so.
“Square footage in Ann Arbor is a premium,” she said. “On a personal level, it makes me sad, but professionally, I completely understand ... There will always be a demand to some extent for people who want to play pool, but I don’t think it’s going to be what the billiards room is right now. Student needs evolve, spaces evolve…”
But the evolution of the Union will not just impact students. Whereas the billiards hall is open to the entire Ann Arbor community, the IdeaHub will be exclusive to students. Originally from Ypsilanti, Greg Jackson has lived in Ann Arbor for about 23 years, but he’s been a regular at the pool hall for even longer.
“I started playing when I was 15 years old. All I wanted to do was play pool ... I was here almost every day for about 20 years. Almost every day,” he said. “It’s just the love of the game.”
Jackson says he endured a rollover car accident in 1995, which put him in a coma and permanently damaged his brain, but pool has helped him recover.
“I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to accept things ... Pool has trained me to think about things in the long run. It’s trained me to take my time to concentrate and not just do the first thing that I see automatically.”
The billiards hall is not only Jackson’s home-away-from-home, but he says pool has taught him how to cope with a chaotic neighborhood at times.
“It’s been a great run for me here. I’ve loved every day that I’ve played here. I never got into a fight here. I never got into so much as an argument here. It’s just a peaceful place. It’s a peaceful place,” he said.
Since it was constructed and opened up to the public, the pool hall has been a cornerstone of Ann Arbor, Jackson emphasized. He, like others, understands the financial turmoil of the room, but hopes the University can find another public space for pool.
“(The University) is focusing on education and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I have to accept it. I have to accept things I can’t change and I can only change things in certain circumstances,” he dejectedly said, perhaps relaying a lesson he learned from the game of pool.
But it isn't just players mourning the billiards hall’s death. LSA senior Alexandra Ngo has worked at the pool hall since her freshman year as a work-study employee, rising up the ranks to now serve as the facilities and equipment manager.
“I’ve gotten to know everyone who comes in this room. I know everybody’s first name. I know what table they go to. I know what class they’re coming from and what they’re studying,” she said. “There’s a bunch of people who have been here longer than some students have been alive.”
Alex works about 30 hours a week alongside the 10 to 12 other work-study students who earn an income at the pool hall any given year. Over her four years at the pool hall, she has overseen weddings, bat-mitzvahs, bar-mitzvahs, "Sweet 16s" and many more events.
“It breaks my heart because I didn’t even know that the billiards room was included in the renovations until I got back to campus (this fall). And it breaks my heart every time alumni come in and say ‘Wow, this room has so much history,’” she said. “Coming in here and just talking to the regulars or people I recognize is one of my favorite things.”
Ngo pointed out three distinctly modern tables in the far corner of the pool hall and explained they are Diamond Tables — the kind used in professional pool’s most competitive tournaments.
“We just bought these tables. We need a purpose for them ... This isn’t something you’re going to see drunk as hell sitting at Circus with people eating popcorn on them,” she said, referencing Circus Bar & Billiards on South 1st Street. “This is something that people literally drive to Ann Arbor to use. We are fighting to keep these in the building!”
Michigan Union employees declined to give the exact amount the University spent on the Diamond tables, but Sundholm says the total amount was less than $20,000. The fate of the tables are also uncertain as the University seeks a new home.
Almost everyone I spoke to empathizes with the University’s rationale for closing the financially defunct pool hall, but Ngo is unapologetically opposed.
“The University takes so much pride in its history and we talk about tradition and culture on campus, but if we get rid of the billiards room I call bullshit … (The pool hall) is not only integral to U-M’s history, but also the history of Ann Arbor, so fuck U-M if we get rid of this.”
This past summer I found myself in rural Buriram, Thailand for a weekend. No one spoke English, but everyone played pool. When I got on the table, I shed the role of strange foreigner and became just another player, shooting alongside everyone else. That bar, filled with smoke and tattered pool tables scarred by usage and lack of maintenance, was a far cry from the Union’s billiards hall.
In a few short months, the billiards hall will fall to the shadow of the Union, joining ghosts like the bowling alley and swimming pool; which had been replaced by fast food chains and the computer lab. Pool will always be a part of my life, though that may mean playing more often on the unkempt tables down at Eightball Saloon on South 1st Street. But I will never forget the long days and late nights spent shooting on table 8 overlooking State Street alongside other wannabe hustlers, bonded by a shared passion for pool.
This semester is likely your last chance to shoot some racks in the same room as Michigan’s greatest once did. Use the pool hall late in the semester, and you may be the room’s last.