ANN ARBOR – The Michigan Union will reopen on Jan. 13 after having gone through extensive renovations.
The $86.6 million project took 20 months to complete and included structural and aesthetic updates on the nearly 101-year-old building.
While exterior renovations began in the summer of 2017, interior updates began in May 2018. The project was funded by a new student fee implemented to help cover the cost.
“It was really our students who initiated this project,” said Susan Pile, senior director of University Unions and Auxiliary Services.
“It was student leaders who said, ‘We are willing to pay a student fee in order to improve our student unions and our recreational sports facilities.' And, ultimately, the Regents passed a $65 per term student fee that students pay to do these renovations. It’s mostly funded through the student fee as well as other institutional resources.”
The most transformed space is the courtyard. What used to be green space has been converted into a stunning two-story atrium, incorporating the same exterior walls of both the original 1919 building and south-facing addition and featuring a soaring arched glass ceiling.
And it’s not just the view up top that’s impressive. The floor is an intricate pattern of 38,000 pieces of end grain wood. Modern maize, blue and grey furniture brings a new, youthful feel to the historic space.
✉ Like what you’re reading? Sign up for our email newsletter here!
Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is moving into a cloister along the courtyard’s north-facing wall on the lower level. Glass panels that separate the cafe and the main gathering space can be opened up to create a flow between the two spaces.
The second level of the north wing used to be enclosed office space, but has been opened up for a more open air feel.
“What we wanted to restore was the feeling of that open terrace space," said Pile. "The railing is actually an exact replica of the original railing that used to be in that space. The architects found the original blueprints for the railing and recreated it.”
Pile said the students were involved in every part of the design process -- from gathering spaces to which food vendors would join the Union -- but that the courtyard is expected to be the main attraction.
“What we heard from students as they were helping us in the design process was that they wanted this to feel like an indoor Diag -- that they wanted it to feel like a place of serendipitous interaction and connection with lots of things happening at any given time,” she said.
A clear ode to the Diag is the Block M in the center of the room. “We needed the Block M in the courtyard to replicate the Diag," said Pile. “That Block M was actually located on the fourth floor of the building and has now been moved down here to the Courtyard where it will be much more visible and enjoyed.”
Overall, she said she expects the courtyard to become a new campus center.
“This is a transformative space and I can imagine this becoming a part of the campus culture where students say to each other, ‘I’ll meet you in the courtyard,’" said Pile. “I think it’s going to be quite a vibrant, happening place.”
Throughout the building, visitors can see original or replicated details by architects Pond and Pond -- brothers Irving and Allen who were University of Michigan alumni and who built the original Union. Newer details like custom Motawi tiles -- designed by U-M alumna Nawal Motawi -- can be found at several of the building’s drinking stations.
The university had 540 of the Union’s original windows hand restored by family-owned, Michigan-based company Full Spectrum Stained Glass.
Beyond aesthetics, the decades-old infrastructure of the building was also updated, including a new sprinkler and fire alarm system, restroom upgrades, plumbing, electrical and mechanical system upgrades, elevator replacements and upgrades, exterior masonry repairs and a total roof replacement.
Now with a new sprinkler system -- which didn’t exist in the old Union -- the building’s stairways have been opened up and no longer have doors separating each level.
The main entrance is noticeably larger and brighter -- a stark contrast to the dark hallway that used to lead into the Union. The Campus Information desk has been moved across the hall to its original location.
To the left, visitors will notice a massive transparent fireplace that is shared by both the building’s entrance hall and what is now called the South Lounge. Formerly office space, the lounge has been opened up and new furniture has been added to accommodate more flex-use student space.
The university had the building re-zoned to create a more efficient layout of office space in an effort to maximize social gathering areas.
One such area is the former Billiard Room on the second floor. It is now known as the Idea Hub and is a new and improved space for student organizations to meet. It features movable furniture, flexible seating and is intended to be a drop-in area for groups.
While original wood paneling, windows and Pond and Pond detail remains throughout the space, a clever use of old materials stands out.
“Several tables in this space are made out of bowling lanes," said Pile. “The Michigan Union used to have bowling lanes. They closed several decades ago and we’ve had a few of them in storage and now we’ve converted them to these tables that are in the space.”
More second floor features include conference rooms, gathering booths on the terrace overlooking the courtyard, lockers and studios for student organizations.
Offices will now occupy the third and fourth floors of the building. On the third floor, construction crews restored the building’s original terrazzo floors, which had been covered up by carpet for decades.
The third floor will now house student government, the Spectrum Center and Student Organization Account Services. The fourth floor will now house campus sexual assault and prevention services (SAPAC) and CAPS, the counseling and psychological services office.
What’s the same
The lower level has undergone minor renovations, so the food court will be recognizable to those who frequented the Union before construction began. However, new food vendors will be moving in, including Panera Bread, Taco Bell, MI Burger, Mama DeLuca’s and Blue Market. Panda Express and Subway will return to the space as well.
The northern entrance to the building has been opened up and made more accessible with a large ramp.
The Rogel Ballroom, while having undergone some infrastructural restoration, has remained the same.
Overall, while much of the building looks brand-new, the architects prioritized re-purposing and replicating original materials, and restoring some of the building’s intended layout, according to original blueprints. Pile said the design kept the building’s history and integrity in mind, to honor the space that has served University of Michigan students for over a century.
“(This building) has taken care of the students on this campus for 100 years, and it was time for us to reinvest in the space to make sure it was going to last through the next generations of students to come," said Pile.
The grand reopening event will take place on Jan. 13 starting at 11:30 a.m. The first 500 guests will receive a commemorative item. Tours and an open house of the building will take place from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The Michigan Union is at 530 S. State St.