The Birth of a Union: An Archival History of Missouri’s Memorial Union

It was the year 1915, and many other universities across the country were beginning to establish student unions. Chicago already had its Reynolds Club; Harvard had its Union Building; Peabody College had its Social Building; and Michigan had a union structure that cost nearly a million and a half (Pamphlet in UMC Archives, Memorial Union Vertical File). All of these buildings served a purpose and carried a memorable significance. It was now time for the University of Missouri to create a memorable Student Union to call their own. However, it was not until sometime in 1919, after the end of the World War it was suggested there should be a memorial for the students of the University of Missouri who gave their lives in World War I (UMC Archives, C:0/29/1). Little did anyone know that it would take the University of Missouri almost 50 years and two million dollars to complete a Student Union due to economic instability of the 1930’s.

In the beginning of 1920, there were only preliminary discussions and meetings that started off campus. It was not uncommon to find Robert E. Lee Hill, E. Sydney Stephens, E.A. Trowbridge, Professor of Animal Husbandry, Professor Defoe, and Frank Rollins on the second floor of the Commercial Club Room located on 10th and Broadway discussing plans to propose a student union (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2). These preliminary discussions lasted over a year until the day of October 1, 1920. It was this day that the first steps toward building a student union were taken by the Alumni Committee of the University when they appointed the original Executive Committee. This committee consisted of the Chairman L.M. Defoe of the College of Engineering, Dean Walter Miller of the Graduate School and Dr. John Pickard, Professor of Archaeology and who had a large part in planning the State Capitol in Jefferson City (UMC Archives, C:0/29/1). These men were appointed to help carry out the idea of creating a Memorial Union for the university.

In order to raise money for this project, the Alumni Committee of the University appointed Odon Guitar as Campaign Director. He began by writing letters, columns for the newspaper, and offering pledge subscriptions. He started a small campaign fund in Columbia, Kansas City, and Saint Louis to pay for necessary preliminary expenses. The students showed their first real interest in the idea of a student union when they decided to help raise money for a week in April of 1921. In three days, the 2900 students raised a little over $246,000 in pledges. It was through this campaign drive the committee decided it was going to cost at the minimum $100 for a Life Membership at the Memorial Union (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1).

The Memorial Tower was originally planned to be placed at the corner of University Avenue and Hitt Street. The University hired an architect by the name of Mr. James P. Jamieson of the firm Jamieson and Spearl from St. Louis. He worked on the design of the tower for several years. It became an obsession of his when he continued to submit new architectural plans to the Committee. In 1922, Mumford Hall was placed on the corner of University Avenue and Hitt Street so the Committee had to find another site for the Student Union. Then, the Committee decided to put the tower in its current location on Hitt street near Lowry Mall (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

In October of 1923, a University of Missouri Bulletin was published titled The Memorial Union and Stadium. In this pamphlet it described the plans and design for Memorial Union and the Stadium. The building was to consist of three parts to form a structure of 330 feet in length. At the center of the building would stand the Memorial Tower at 142 feet tall with wings on each side to “provide for assembly, rest and recreation rooms for men on one side and on the other side for women” (UMC Archives, Memorial Union Vertical File). Before the men and women of the University could join this “campus club,” they would have to create campaigns to raise the necessary funds.

Towards the end of the year 1922, the Committee voted for Dr. J.C. Jones, who was currently the President of the University, to become the new campaign director and handle all donated funds once he left office in 1923 (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2). Along with a description of the new Student Union, the University of Missouri Bulletin also gave a brief description of the campaign so far. Shortly after taking the position on October 15, 1923, Dr. J.C. Jones raised a total of $138,616.36 from former alumni and students. After two years of fund raising, the money to build Memorial Union had been collected and paid for (UMC Archives, Memorial Union Vertical File).

While the campaigns continued from Saint Louis to Kansas City, the President of the University at the time, Stratton D. Brooks, was impressed with the amount of funds raised and realized the persistence of the students and decided to create a Memorial Committee of Nine. This committee consisted of three alumni, three members of the faculty, and three students who would be in charge of raising funds, the construction of Memorial Union, and to continue the work of the original Executive Committee (UMC Archives, Memorial Union Vertical File). These men and women had the responsibility of the University of Missouri Memorial Fund. In an excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Board of Curators on April 25, 1922 it became clear why the Memorial Committee of Nine was created:

It shall be understood, however, that the Board of Curators assumes no responsibility for funds until transferred to the University treasury nor for the campaign for the subscriptions to said fund or the collection thereof.

This committee was created because the Board of Curators were not authorized to spend any money towards the construction of the Memorial Union (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). The three alumni were S.F. Conley, Frank B, Rollins, and E. Sydney Stephens; the three members of the faculty included Professor L.M. Defoe, College of Engineering, Dean Walter Miller, Graduate School, and Professor John Pickard, Archaeology; the three students included Fred Eldean, who studied Law, Carl Crocker, who studied Law, and Mary Houk, who studied Education (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

By the end of 1922, the University of Missouri had about $39,000.00 to put towards the construction of the Memorial Tower. At this point, many of the students and faculty were anxious to continue the construction of their Student Union. During a meeting of the Committee of Nine on May 25, 1922, Dr. John Pickard suggested the architect begin to “design the finest Gothic Tower he can build for the Memorial Union Building Tower” (UMC Archives, C:0/29/1). By November 3, 1922 the Committee agreed to hire a local contractor to lay the foundation of the Memorial Tower in order to obtain a reasonable estimate on the cost. There were several bids, with the lowest from Stewart Brothers, a Columbia firm in the amount of $17,625.00. Later that month on Homecoming Day, November 29, they laid the cornerstone in the foundation. Fully aware of the insufficient funds, the Committee decided to continue with construction by building the tower in three parts: the foundation, up about half way, and the rest of the structure (UMC Archives, C: 029/1). Their knowledge of insufficient funds is evident in this excerpt from the minutes of the Committee of Nine:

Dr. Pickard made the suggestion that the building could be let in three or four sections, with the Board of Curators reserving the power to stop work at the end of either of the sections. Mr. Sydney Stephens suggested waiting to build until a larger amount of money is pledged and a larger amount of cash is on hands.Dean Miller moved the complete of the Tower as planned. Dr. Pickard seconded the motion. Motion carried.

And on that day, March 17, 1923 at 10 A.M. at the Boone County Trust Company, the Committee of Nine agreed to continue construction (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). At this time, they could only afford the foundation of the building. After signing the contract, the Committee began campaigns to raise more money. They collected money from graduating seniors and incoming freshman. The students helped the effort by pledging nearly $256,000 during a three day drive in October of 1923 (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). Finally in 1924, the University of Missouri had collected around $74,000 in cash. The University was given several bids, but the lowest bid came from the Simon Construction Company in Columbia in the amount of $239,590.00 for the entire Student Union. However, since there were insufficient funds there was a condition in the contract stating work could be stopped half way up at the cost of $112, 980.00. Since the University only had $74,000 in cash, a few people from faculty signed notes that added to $35,000 to build the tower half way up. The bond of $35,000 was divided between the following:

S.F. Conley, Boone County National Company $7,000
R.B. Price, Jr., Boone County National Bank $7,000
H.H. Banks, Columbia Savings Bank $7,000
J.C. McLachlan, Central Bank $2,000
W.T. Conley, Meyers Bank $5,000
C.B. Bowling, Exchange National Bank $7,000

Through these the notes, the Committee was able to obtain sufficient funds to pay for the construction of the tower (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2)

The tower was built in a unique Gothic architecture all made of limestone taken from various sites in Missouri. There were fifteen Italian stone masons who carved the huge decorative blocks of rock (UMC Archives, Newspaper clipping, C:0/29/1). The construction of the tower was delayed due to the expensive limestone it was constructed out of. The tower was completed in 1926 and at this time the University of Missouri did not have enough money to put in the marble roof and archway in the tower for a contracted price of $7,586.50. In order to raise money, the Committee of Nine decided to “campaign the second week in December of 1926 in Springfield, Missouri which is the only large town in the state where a campaign has not been held” (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). Through many campaigns, the Committee of Nine was able to contract the Simon Construction Company to continue with the marble work, granite border, and first floor archway in March of 1927.

After completing the tower in 1927, work began on the South Wing of the Memorial Union on Homecoming Day of 1930. They chose this day as groundbreaking day in hopes of raising enough funds to secure the plans. However, shortly after construction began, it came to a sudden stop due to the lack of sufficient funds to continue because of the Depression. The tower stood alone and only a deep crater remained at the site for more than 30 years (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1).

While trying to solicit funds to complete Memorial Union, the Committee of Nine found that some people were willing to pledge only for the stadium and not the union. Therefore, at the end of 1923 the Committee on Inter Collegiate Athletics held a meeting to decide:

The Director and the two other members to be chosen by him were appointed to serve with the Memorial Committee as a joint Campaign Committee to raise a fund for the Memorial Union and Stadium, it being understood and agreed that three-fifths (3/5) of all money collected after the present date shall be placed in a separate fund for the building of a stadium, and that said fund shall be handled according to the direction of the Board of Curators.

This lasted for three years until 1926 when the ratio was changed to 50% Union and 50% Stadium (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

In 1929, the President of the University at the time, Dr. Stratton Brooks, believed if they started construction on a wing of the Memorial Union Building it would spark enough interest of the students and faculty they would pledge funds to complete the project. This campaign did not stimulate the amount of interest he had planned, but the University secured an amount of $161, 475.00 for the wing. Throughout the years, less than $5,000 was paid on those pledges due to the depression (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). The President of City Bank and Trust Company, R.C. Kemper, wrote a letter to the Executive Committee on January 25, 1932 suggesting another way to collect the funds that were pledged:

It occurs to me that a great many of the subscribers listed are in a financial position to pay the balance of their allotment at this time. However, I think it will be necessary to resort to legal means in some of theses cases. It might be advisable to select some young attorney in Kansas City and place these collections in his hands on a 25% contingent basis. I see any number of men on this list who are financially able to take care of their notes, but probably will not do so unless pressure is brought upon them.

On February 3, 1932 the letter was read during a meeting of the Memorial Committee of Nine where they decided to prepare a letter to be sent to all Memorial subscribers in regards to their pledges:

The Executive Board of the University is obliged to call attention to a problem that has developed and for the solution which we urge your earnest cooperation… When the construction of the Union Building was started, the University did not have at hand the sufficient funds to pay for them; although the subscriptions for theses were amply sufficient. But, in order that their facilities be promptly available, arrangements were made with contractors and the bankers to finance their construction. To provide funds for Memorial Union, it was necessary to borrow through a bond issue and to secure the payment of these bonds from the receipts of all the subscriptions pledged. In making that pledge, both the University and bank have relied upon the payment of these subscriptions. If the University should default in the payment of these loans, the holders of this collateral could be processed to take action against the subscriptions. The possibility of such a procedure can be avoided if they will assist us by cooperating with the above request.

Many subscriptions were made during the campaign years of 1921-1932, but before the Committee could collect the funds the depression started and many subscribers could not pay their pledges.

The Committee was not satisfied with the amount of funds they were receiving from the subscriptions and decided it might be necessary to take legal action to collect the amounts due on the pledges before the Statue of Limitations ran out. However, the Committee ran into some problems with many of the subscribers (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). For example, they tried to collect a pledge from Mrs. Herbert Steinbeck for the amount of $100.00, but she claimed to have been a minor at the time of the pledge and argued that it was not valid. Another pledge that became inactive was that of the Smith’s Auto Shop for the amount of $100.00. However, at the time the Executive Committee tried to collect their money, the company no longer existed and like many others he was put on an inactive list (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). As of January 1, 1952 there was still an amount of $669,919.73 due on the pledges most that were never paid for (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

By 1946, the 63rd General Assembly “authorized the state educational institutions to issue revenue bonds” in order to construct dormitories, dining room facilities and social and recreational buildings, “with the provision that the revenue bonds should be paid from the net income of the projects” (UMC Archives, C: 0/52/1). Towards the end of the year 1948, the University had been able to save about $1,500,000 from student fees and other funds which could be put towards the construction of the Union (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

However there were many people who wanted to help in the construction of the Memorial Union which meant there were many different opinions. There were some who wanted everything, which was more than the University of Missouri could afford. The original plans included music rooms, bowling alleys, ping pong, cafeterias, dance halls, and a hotel. With this plan in mind, the Committee of Nine called for bids in September of 1948. The lowest bid on the Memorial Union building was $3,169,000 for 3 ½ floors including a large ball room to dance 900 couples. The Committee knew they could not afford this and made major deductions, but with the deductions taken out the bid only came to $2,943,491. However, the University only had $1,500,000 available and knew they would have to issue another bond or get money from campaigning to afford these plans (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

With 7,000 students at the time the University of Missouri believed they could pay off a loan by charging a student activity fee of $13.25 a semester. This amount would still not cover the money needed to build the student union and therefore the plan was canceled and the bids were rejected. The students and faculty could not agree on acceptable plans for the union and designs were continuously drawn up to satisfy each group. It took a few years to finally agree on a student union (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

By 1950, the Board of Curators approved new plans for the construction of the north wing of the Union building. This wing was completed in 1952 and the funds came from the following sources:

State Appropriations $318,158.57
From non state appropriated unrestricted University funds $1,313,107.00
Proceeds from 20 year revenue bonds $566,313.00
Interest earned on investments of construction funds $36,323.16
Total $2,233,901.73

The construction costs amounted to $2,135,946.01, which left a remaining balance of $97,955.72 to pay off any interest (UMC Archives, C: 05/52/1). The north wing was finally opened to the students with four fewer meeting rooms, no ball room, no third floor, and a smaller cafeteria than originally planned (UMC Archives, UW: 4/30/2).

In the spring of 1963, around ten or eleven years after the opening of the north wing, the south wing of the Memorial Union was completed. The crater in the ground that sat there for nearly 33 years had finally been constructed to complete the Memorial Union building (UMC Archives, C: 0/52/1). In order to complete this Student Union, the University of Missouri borrowed money and owed an amount of $2,500,000. Each student at the University at the time was required to pay a $7.50 Buildings and Activities Fee each semester to help pay for the debt (UMC Archives, C: 0/29/1). It would take the University several years to pay off the debt used to build the Student Union.

After almost 50 years and two and half million dollars, the Memorial Union Building was completed. The University only found it appropriate to have a dedication ceremony for the completed Memorial Union on October 12, 1963. Many of those who took part in completing the student union gave a speech on the significance and dedication for which the building was built. In a speech given by James A. Finch, Jr. he explains that the:

Memorial Tower and the Student Union Building constitute a memorial to alumni and former students of the University who gave their lives in the great conflicts, in the hope and for the purpose of seeking to preserve a system and way of life which makes possible a university such as this and the wide opportunity for higher education which it provides. This building is a fitting memorial to those students.

Through his speech it was clear how this new student union was a source of pride and hope for the students and faculty (UMC Archives, C: 0/52/1).

A project that started almost five decades ago to create a student union had finally become a reality. Even though the University had to face immense financial obstacles they were able to complete their vision. The Memorial Union Building was built by alumni, students, and faculty as a monument to those who gave their lives in the World War. It had become the center of campus life for most students and faculty. Finally after 47 years, the University of Missouri had a Student Union to call their own.

Emily Launhardt is an undergraduate at MU. She wrote this essay as part of an intermediate composition course.