The Michigan Union has been a link between past and present for students, faculty and alumni since 1919. It has opened its doors to generations of students and more than a few celebrities, including President John Kennedy and the Dalai Lama.

Angela Cesere
The Michigan Union can be seen under construction in this photo dated March 3, 1917. The house in the middle of the background is on the end of Jefferson Street and still stands today. (Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

In 1903, Prof. Edward Parker, who would serve as the Union’s first president, presented a senior honor society – then called Michigamua – with the idea of opening a student union. He wanted to use Michigamua’s influence to bolster student interest in the building.

Then-University President James Angell also supported the idea, seeing an opportunity for stronger ties between the school and its students. At the time, there was growing concern over the divide between fraternity and non-fraternity members on campus.

But despite its lofty goals, raising money for the Union was a challenge.

The Union project competed for donations with the Alumni Memorial Hall project, and financial burdens eventually forced the fundraisers to persuade the University to add a fee for Union construction to registration costs for enrolled students. But even this revenue source was meager, with World War I causing enrollment to fall dramatically.

Initial cost estimates placed the price of construction between $300,000 and $400,000. In the end, just the framework of the building cost $1.2 million.

Eventually, the Michigan State War Preparedness Board loaned the University money to complete the building. In exchange, the Student Army Training Corps was allotted space inside the building for barracks.

The Union soon became a starting point for University traditions like the Michigan Union Opera. The opera was one of the largest fundraisers for the building project, earning enough money in its first two shows to purchase the land for the Union.

By 1914, the Union had 4,047 members.

The Union finally opened in 1919, expanded in 1936 and again in 1938.

The Union was originally designed as a way to unite Michigan students and alumni. But not everyone was welcome.

Until 1954, women were not allowed inside the building. Women could not be members of the Union until 1972.

The building is dedicated to former President Angell. At its opening, a bronze tablet was placed at the front entrance in his memory.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *