The Memorial Union: The University’s ‘Living Room’

Memorial Union
Memorial Union at sunset. © The University of Rhode Island

Today we know the Memorial Union as the building with the clock tower in the heart of the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston Campus, but the Union has a long and quirky history. It all started in 1943 when the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity building—vacant at the time—was turned into a student gathering place.

Although the Union is not 125 years old like the University, it has more than 125 stories to tell. The Union has hosted Isley Brothers concerts, Friday night dances with the likes of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, and distinguished speakers from poet Robert Frost to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. But did you know that there was a boxing match in the Memorial Union and that it once housed a bowling alley and a pub?

Inside Memorial Union Quonset Hut
Students hang out at the Student Union when it was housed in a Quonset hut. Photos from the 1955 yearbook, Grist

After World War II and the influx of soldiers returning home to attend the University, the Union outgrew the old Phi Gamma Delta building. So in 1946, five connected Quonset huts served as the Union until a new building was erected in 1954. That building, named the Memorial Union, was dedicated to students, faculty, and alumni who died during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. “We are now looking at adding the names of those who died in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars,” says Memorial Union Interim Director Maureen McDermott.

The new Memorial Union accommodated the students’ need for a place of their own and for stress-relieving activities such as ping pong, chess, and bridge. From the 1950s to the 1970s there was even a bowling alley on the ground floor—the current location of student mailboxes. During this time, The U.S. Postal Service delivered student mail to the residences on campus.

The evolution of the Union represents the culture of each period, Sheri Davis, the Memorial Union’s conference and event coordinator, explains. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were afternoon teas, and from the 1960s through the 1980s, there was even a pub where Union Square is now located. The drinking age had been lowered in the 1960s when young people argued, If they were old enough to fight and die in a (Vietnam) war at 18, they were old enough to have a drink.

“When the law was first changed, freshmen had a hard time believing that they were abiding by the law by going in at 18,” says Bruce Hamilton, former director of the Memorial Union, who served there for 35 years. The pub was shut down in 1980 when the lawmakers gradually returned the legal drinking age to 21.

Memorial Union staff celebrating the Union’s 50th anniversary in 2004

In 2004, to celebrate the Union’s rich history and its many interesting stories, the staff held a weeklong celebration of the building’s 50th anniversary. Each day marked a different decade, with the staff dressed in period costumes to represent each decade. Hamilton dressed as a greaser-biker; former Vice President Thomas Dougan represented the ’70s by dressing in a toga; Carol Pegg, executive assistant, channeled an ’80s Madonna, Michael Nolfe represented the ’90s and technology; Fran Cohen, former Dean of Students, dressed as a ’60s hippie; and Steve Simo, director for Greek Life, embodied the Reagan years.

With URI’s expanding enrollment, the Union’s first addition was completed in 1965. In 1992, as URI was celebrating its centennial, the University again expanded and renovated the entire facility. The students needed more space, especially for student organizations, so rooms and offices were added and the bookstore, expanded. This was also the time when the University gathered all mailboxes in one place, recalls Bruce Hamilton. “The post office was so happy about this that it donated all the mailboxes.”

As Hamilton points out, the Memorial Union’s strength has always been to adapt to the times and the students. He remembers that when he first arrived at the Union, there were two secretaries smoking in the office, no computers and no smartphones. “We had electric typewriters. We thought it was pretty cool,” Hamilton says. “Our job is to make sure we evolve.”

The building itself might have evolved, but the Union’s original purpose remains. “It was originally set up as a place where people could gather,” Davis says, “almost like the living room of the University. “It’s truly a great place for the entire community to come and meet and share ideas.” Even with technology and the ability to communicate online,  there is still a need to meet directly.

“You can see it in the lounge, there are people studying, students playing cards, watching movies, hanging out, eating,” McDermott adds.

The Union has also brought together different members of the community. Blues “n” Cues nights, organized for many years by URI Police Officer Mark Cherino, find URI police officers in Union to play pool and eat pizza with the students. That event spawned many of the URI Police Department’s community policing programs in place today.

Rhody statue in front of Memorial Union
Ramses I (also known as Rhody the Ram) stands in front of Memorial Union. The sculpture was a gift of the Class of 1958.

The uniqueness of the Memorial Union is the constant collaboration between the building’s staff and the students. “That building works because of our student leaders and the Memorial Union team,” says Hamilton.

Who would have thought that a Quidditch club would be created, recognized and even have organized a tournament? In 1995, Hamilton was skeptical when students came to him with the idea of a ballroom dancing club, and yet it worked and the club kept growing. “You never know what is going to work,” he says.

Today, the Memorial Union is still a place where students meet, exchange ideas, participate in social and educational activities, and receive help with their studies or everyday campus life. Now, almost 75 years after its beginnings, the Memorial Union houses more than 180 student organizations, shops, restaurants, the URI Bookstore, a hair salon, and many student services, including the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Student Involvement.

Since 1943, the University’s “living room” has grown in size and sophistication, meeting the needs of a dynamic global university. As the Memorial Union looks toward the next 125 years, one can only imagine the projects students will come up with to fill the campus with life.

Sarah Saltiel-Ragot, an international student from Sciences Po Rennes in France and an intern in URI’s Department of Marketing and Communications, wrote this story.