Details Set Union South Apart

Union South bowling lanesBy now, you have probably heard about Union South’s eight bowling alleys, the climbing wall, the new movie theater and the Sett, a three-story club and recreation complex named after a badger’s den. The details, however, are what make the new $94.8 million gathering spot a worthy partner for the historic Memorial Union.

Wood, stone and leather are the materials that give the new kid on west campus the feeling of substance that was lacking in its predecessor. The hotel lobby window is etched with images of grasses and trees found in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum; pieces of the stone façade from Rennebohm’s drug store create a base for a wall-hugging bench; the prairie is recreated again in bronze as a fire screen for one of two fireplaces built of stone from Mosinee.

The look and feel of Wisconsin permeates the new space. Artist Jill Sebastian, a professor of sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, helped set the tone as she integrated art into the building’s design as part of the Percent For Art program that designates 1 percent of a building’s budget to art. In brainstorming meetings with students and staff, Sebastian discovered their strong respect for “Madison’s seminal role in the history of conservation and ongoing commitment to the environment.”

Sebastian integrates the environment and Wisconsin’s rich history of environmental activism into her art pieces. Naturalist Aldo Leopold’s thoughts on now-extinct passenger pigeons were cast in relief for a wall-sized installation – only after the artist and her assistant scoured Leopold’s journals to find each of the letters needed to reproduce the words in his handwriting.

Molly Murray from the Arboretum gathered prairie grasses and flowers that became the models for the etched glass “Prairie Passages.” “I savor their (the plant) names as I draw or discuss them with Colin Dickson, my studio assistant,” Sebastian wrote in her blog. “These sketches will be the basis for the templates needed to etch the glass. Poring over photographs, I am delighted to realize I can now identify these special prairie species when I spot them growing wild in unexpected places or cultivated in gardens.”

The iconic sunburst, so familiar on the Union Terrace chairs, has been integrated into the designs of lights and carpeting. The wooden chairs inside Union South suggest the sunburst; the familiar metal sunburst chairs can be found on upper balconies.

Barn wood has been made into floors. The old Kohl Center floor has been turned into a wall covering and tables in the Sett’s recreation area. Wisconsin’s indigenous people used Paoli clay to make the tiles used in backsplashes for bubblers. A gift paid for the bubbling stream in the south plaza.

Although Union South doesn’t open until April 15, the 60-room hotel is already booked for the weekend of the Wisconsin-Nebraska football game. Pre-game Badger Bashes will be moved to the new south plaza, where the UW Marching Band assembled to allow the builders to measure exactly how big the terrace needed to be to accommodate the band. Band director Michael Leckrone and Bucky Badger left their hand prints in the concrete.

There is no devil in these details that combine to create a welcome gathering place for students, faculty, staff, community members and visitors, whether they’re looking for music, movies, meals, fun or just a chance to sit in the sun.

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Deborah Ziff wrote more about the new building in her April 4 story.