Union History

The idea of unions was born in Cambridge, England, in the early 1800s when debating societies needed a place to debate, then gather and have refreshments after their debates. This began the long-standing tradition of the union as the living room or hearthstone of the campus. The first union in the United States was at Harvard University. The first building to house union services and activities was at University of Pennsylvania in 1896; it was called Houston Hall. In 1996, Houston Hall celebrated its 100th birthday. The union has a long tradition on the University of North Texas campus as well. In March 1999, we celebrated 50 years of unions at the university.

As early as 1931, O'Neil Ford, a distinguished alum and architect, designed a union that would incorporate a memorial tower and bell, something that had been envisioned and desired for quite a long time. A campaign was launched to raise $100,000 needed for the project, but the times were not right for fund-raising. The country was in the midst of the devastating Depression, yet college administrators did not give up, and in 1933, President Robert L. Marquis submitted a proposal for a union and dining hall to be financed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's National Recovery Act at a cost of $150,000. By raising the student activity fee from $11 to $15, construction seemed closer to a reality, yet nothing happened, and the students continued without a union for another 16 years.

By the beginning of the fall 1947 semester, enabling registration and revenue bonds were secured for the first union, which was a remodeled army surplus center. The students did not mind since, at long last, they had a place to gather for fun, food, and fellowship.  However, other obstacles arose as the federal government twice denied the application for materials to be used in construction and plans that had been drawn up for the first wing of the union were delayed because of prices exceeding the construction budget.

Finally, in the summer of 1948, contracts totaling $513,429 were awarded to construction companies to build a new union, a gymnasium, and a journalism building.  Construction plans for the union included the incorporation of a bookstore and post office.  Another obstacle was thrown in the way of construction in October of 1948, when a group of Denton merchants argued that that the union stores would jeopardize their business.  The delay was short-lived and construction continued to progress. 

The Memorial Student Union was finished on March 31, 1949, dedicated to the alumni who gave their lives in World War I and World War II.  A bronze plaque with names of 147 former students who died in military service was erected in the main foyer.  The union was dedicated on the same day of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the legislative act, which established the university as a state institution. Dr. James Rogers, a former University of North Texas faculty member stated in his 1965 book, The Story of North Texas, “In spring of 1949, the long awaited dream house…a new ultra-modern center…the elegant structure…made this year [1949], a great year!” 

The Howdy Room was the students' new “living room” on campus, and for many years, was the center of social activity. The Snack Bar, the Trophy Room, the Trading Post, and the Slab were early union facilities well remembered by students of that generation. Impromptu dancing in the Howdy Room, Wednesday night dances on the Slab, and weekly concerts by the Aces of Collegeland (the forerunner of today's Lab Bands) were all a part of that first union.  “The Trading Post had a western look to it,” Rogers said.  “And the Howdy Room was a great big space with a balcony above—it was very rustic in appearance.”

By the early 1960s, the University's growth forced another change. The student body was rapidly outgrowing the original Memorial Student Union, and plans were approved for a new facility to be constructed in two stages. The first wing began in early summer 1963, just south of the existing facility. When the first wing opened, the old building was demolished and the main wing was constructed on the original union site with the addition of conference rooms, a newer bookstore, and a cafeteria.  “The basement still had the Trading Post,” Rogers said.  “The second floor had a snack bar and the third floor was the main lounge.  It had a piano and a television in it.”

Though not yet 10 years old, the second Union facility soon became inadequate, and, in May 1973, the Board of Regents approved a $7 million expansion program for the facility. The present expanded University Union encompasses the old building, more than doubling the space for student activities and organizations. There were two L-shaped additions put around the existing building.  “When the Lyceum was built, students had to move to a temporary space called the “TUB,” Rogers said. Crumley Hall took its [union] place, but the post office stayed open during the entire construction.”  Dedication ceremonies for this facility were held on March 7, 1976.  The enrollment at the time of the opening was 17,016 students.

In 1987, Chancellor Alfred Hurley formed an expansion committee to perform a needs assessment for union expansion. The committee determined, after extensive research, that expansion was needed. They spent the next year determining what the goals and objectives of the expansion project would be.

To accommodate for overcrowding, a $14 million expansion/remodeling of the Union was recommended by the Union Expansion Committee, students, faculty, and staff members. The recommendation was supported by the Union Board of Directors but had to be approved also by the student body through majority vote.

Former union director, Dr. Mary Yates, stated, “The union is bursting at the seams and we need to accommodate an increasing enrollment.  Basically the idea of expansion came about because the efforts to accomplish certain objectives were being challenged when enrollment increased.  The number of students coming into the building each day is approximately 12,000 to 20,000 individuals. This results in a lot of overcrowding conditions, such as traffic jams and unsafe conditions with students sitting on stairwells and blocking stairwell usage.”

The cost of the Union expansions/remodeling project was to be funded through 20-year revenue bonds issued at approximately 7%. A tuition increase was not part of the plan, but the Student Use fee was to be increased in 1991. The student use fee $6.00 per semester hour but would be increased by $2.25 to pay off the bonded indebtedness.   If approved by the student body the increase would have gone into effect September 1, 1991 and the construction would not be complete until 1993. Once completed the union would have been better equipped to accommodate the growing student body and make the Union an even more comfortable place hang out.

The expansion was to combine the Rock Bottom Lounge and the Syndicate into one large entertainment center. It would provide expansion to the bookstore text book sales area, two new public elevators would be added, the number of food items offered for sale would be increased and seating for the food service areas would be doubled. Some office areas in the union would also be expanded. The Aerie Yearbook and University Program Council could be moved to higher traffic areas within the union. There would be seven new meeting rooms and the size of the Silver Eagle Suite would be doubled. It would also permit the redesigning of heating and cooling systems to operate more efficiently. Security would be increased, thus permitting departments in the union to stay open later and also expand the hours in which services were offered in the facility.

In the spring of 1991, a referendum was put forth to increase the union fee in order to gain appropriate funds for an expansion, but was narrowly defeated by student vote.

The year 1997 brought with it a new era for the union when one of its many services was privatized. The new Campus Chat Food Court has become a new focal point and hub of activities, and along with the many changes in programs, came the first full-service bank on campus.

It would be 17 years from the failed referendum before action would progress on a new union.  Finally, in October of 2008, the University of North Texas System selected the team of Komatsu Architecture to conduct a programming and feasibility study of the existing facility.  In August of 2009, the study began with intent of accomplishing four major tasks:

  • Determine students' overall programmatic needs for a new and/or improved union building;
  • Assess the current building condition and its potential for renovation and expansion;
  • Understand student preferences and thoughts concerning support for an improved union; and
  • Outline the potential economic parameters of the project (both capital and payback strategy).

Throughout the next couple of years, tours would be conducted of other campuses to gain a better understanding of trends and designs for union facilities.  Students expressed a desire to have a centrally-located, welcoming, transparent, comfortable, and technologically-advance building with clear way-finding and a strong identification of university identity, spirit, and culture.  Through the Komatsu report, the current union was deemed to have numerous safety and accessibility issues, significant civil and utilities issues, mechanical/engineering/plumbing problems, and a structural design not conducive to large open areas.  It would cost students $34 million to correct all of these problems without any increase in space or programmatic function.

In spring of 2010, led by former union director, Mr. Tom Rufer, and vice president of student affairs, Dr. Elizabeth With, the Student Government Association and various other student leaders rallied once again to create a referendum for potential union expansion/renovation.  It would take nearly two years, but in April of 2012, the student body voted and approved a referendum for an increase of no more than $115 to the current Union fee of $51.  This increased fee would go into effect in the fall of 2014.  Students would see dramatic improvements to the Union after the expansion/renovation, which would include the following items:

  • 125% More Student Affairs & Student Organization Space
  • 75% More Food Service & Entertainment
  • 75% More Auditorium & Meeting Space
  • 100% More Lounge & Gallery Space
  • Sustainable Design - Target LEED Platinum
  • New Corner Store
  • Natural Light, Openness, Clear Entries
  • All New Interior Spaces
  • Exciting New Exteriors
  • All New Bookstore Configuration
  • Clear Way-Finding
  • Technologically-Advanced Design & Services

After having initially had their request denied by the Texas Higher Education Board in the fall of 2012 because of high renovation costs and the perception of low student voter turnout, Chancellor Lee Jackson and President V. Lane Rawlins appealed that following spring of 2013 and were granted approval to continue with the project. 

Throughout the entire design process, architects and designers from Perkins+Will had interacted with students through focus groups and student forums.  The feedback and information gathered directly from the students has been a priority in planning the design to ensure the new union represents the vibrant culture at the University of North Texas. Students have had a say in everything from art pieces to signage, technological innovations to furniture, and everything in between.  The new University Union is expected to open in the fall of 2015.  During the construction process, many of the services and programs located within the union will be relocated to various parts of the campus to ensure that students continue to receive the support they have grown accustomed to at the University of North Texas.

The future holds many additional challenges to meet the ever-changing needs of the campus community. From the period between 1948 and 2012, the University Union progressed from a renovated army surplus center to one of the country's most progressive unions.

Today the University Union plays a significant role in co-curricular activities that foster a total learning environment. The University Union staff is committed to providing an atmosphere that is educational, cultural, social, and recreational and that enhances the experiences of the entire campus community.

The University Union provides many programs and services essential to making a student's life on campus more pleasant. Grab a bite to eat, check your mail, see a movie, or play a game of billiards; the union is never a dull place. It is possible, even in this vibrant atmosphere, to find a quiet place to study or relax, wander through the Union Gallery to feed the soul, or slip into a soft chair for a bit of last minute study time.

The University Union continues to diversify and broaden its base to provide services to the community and open its doors to other universities and businesses for the purposes of hosting conferences and banquets.  Every year the union is host to thousands of events and programs put on by university departments as well as the community. In the 2011-2012 academic year, the University Union program records for annual attendance (2,700,000 visitors) and scheduled events (10,250 events).  In addition to all that activity, the University Program Council, a student organization that is part of the University Union, puts on a variety of events each year.

As the hub of activities, students find it easy to fit into campus life at the union. The union houses student organizations, the Student Government Association, and Graduate Student Council (there are more than 400 student organizations on campus) as well as student services such as Dean of Students, Veterans Center, Student Activities, Transfer Center, Orientation & Transition Programs, Student Legal Services, Center for Leadership & Service, and Student Affairs Administration.

A variety of programs and services, and a staff of dedicated people, create a climate of comfort and community at the union. We are here to help you. Come home to the University Union.

Your Union. Your Voice.