Fred Burwell’86
January 02, 2017

A Perfect Union

As Beloit pursues its next student union—integrated with a recreation center in a decommissioned Powerhouse—College Archivist Fred Burwell’86 takes us back to Smith, yet another student union shaped from a building with a previous life.

If you stroll by the Smith Building on Beloit’s campus at night—perhaps at some odd time, like a leap year—you might catch a faint whiff of hot French fries fresh from the fryer or hear the ghost of an electric guitar rocking the old joint from a phantom jukebox.

After the Second World War, Beloit’s student population grew substantially. In order to cope, the college built Aldrich and Maurer dormitories, accommodated returning GIs by adding army surplus barracks as temporary “veterans housing,” and constructed a popular new field house. By the mid-1950s, with well over 1,000 students on campus, the tiny student union in South College proved entirely inadequate.

As far back as the 1940s, a college master plan had urged construction of a new student union. However, a decade later, the college came up with another idea—attach a new natatorium, locker rooms, and other facilities to the field house, and convert the dilapidated 53-year-old Smith Gymnasium into a modern student union. It just might work!

Fundraising began, and by 1957 the college had received donations from over 2,000 alumni and major gifts from trustees Alfred G. Wilson, Matilda Wilson, George W. Mead, and the Kresge and Charles R. Smith Foundations. Students chipped in with the proceeds of a “Million Penny Drive.” All told, the college spent $230,000 on the remodel and accompanying furnishings. Maurice Webster, of Evanston, Ill., who had designed all of the college’s recent residence halls, served as the architect.

A “data sheet” issued by the Beloit College News Service provided details of both exterior and interior renovations. The exterior received a “face lifting job,” with extensive flagstone terracing outside the main bank of windows, later a favorite spot for basking in a shaft of morning sunlight with a steaming cup of coffee. Construction workers removed large swaths of 18-inch-thick brick and created floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing daylight to stream into the snack bar area. The class of 1954 donated stone benches placed near stairwells to the entrances.

On the Smith terrace, 1977. On the Smith terrace, 1977.

“Sometimes, you knew you’d done well if Tom McBride walked with you to the union afterwards. I’m picturing the old one—where the jukebox always played Big Yellow Taxi, and [Bill] Melendy’84 held forth with anyone who would listen about the bodhisattva while Tom Joyner’87 did Ollies on the steps outside. Old Beloit and new Beloit under one big messy roof. It was special. And we knew it a little then, much more now …”

-Matt Tolmach’86

Inside, the lower level included recreation areas for ping pong and billiards, a lounge room “equipped with color TV,” and a conference room. Alumni from future years remember the mail center and bookstore on that floor. The main level featured “complete fountain and grill facilities,” where students might order burgers and pizza or hot fudge sundaes and banana splits before hanging out at tables or huddling together in booths. According to one press release, students could also purchase “everything from college pennants and pocket books to slide rules and inexpensive reproductions of modern art” at the “walk-in style” college bookstore. A control room in the bookstore office piped in “hi-fi and radio recordings” throughout the union. Later union rats recall a well-stocked jukebox in the snack bar area. Upstairs, students could gyrate to one of those newfangled rock ‘n’ roll combos or watch a movie in the union ballroom. On either side of the ballroom, steep stairs led to suites of offices occupied by student government, Round Table newspaper, and Gold yearbook staff.

Ice cream cones are served up from the Smith Union snack bar in the late 1950s. Ice cream cones are served up from the Smith Union snack bar in the late 1950s.

The data sheet bragged about the new union’s carefully selected interior decoration:

Distinctive practicality describes the new union’s colorful furnishings and décor, accented by varied shades of blue and gold. For example, walls in the grill are covered with a new plastic covering which resembles grass cloth, but is more durable than a painted surface and impervious to weather … The attractive blue chairs in the ballroom can be stacked for easy storing … And in addition to being practical, the chairs are “really comfortable.” The new gold colored draperies in the ballroom are of spun glass.

The college hired two student union managers and employed over 50 students part-time to keep the building open long hours, initially from 8:30 a.m. to 10:15 p.m. and later on weekends.

The student union opened on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 1957, with a four-hour evening celebration. Highlights included a talent show, tours, and refreshments, capped off by the “new sound” of Bill McLean and his 14-piece swing band. And, as special dispensation, the Dean’s Office granted women permission to stay out until 11:30p.m., an hour later than usual on a weekday. The union’s formal dedication took place during Commencement weekend in June. President Miller Upton proclaimed the union “a momentous step forward” and “an academic building in the fullest and finest sense of the word.”

A talent show on opening night of the Smith Union, 1957. A talent show on opening night of the Smith Union, 1957.

Over the next 25 years, the student union became a cherished hangout for students, faculty, and staff. It ripened into a comfortable, lived-in space, but eventually began to show its age. Pigeons roosted above the ballroom. Golden spun glass drapery turned dingy. Snazzy linoleum tiles wore out from generations of boots, shoes, and bare feet. The Smith Union closed at the end of 1984, and, at the dawn of a new year, the college opened the former science building, Pearsons Hall, as its new campus center.

Fred Burwell’86 is the Beloit College archivist. Images are from the Beloit College Archives.

Our Campus Living Rooms

In the continuous project of building a campus community, Beloit has created “third spaces” over the years—not classrooms, nor residence halls, but places that exist to encourage community gathering and support. For years, dining halls were the congregational spot most students flocked to, until student unions came along. Beloit’s student unions have made a journey from South College to the Smith Building to Pearsons Hall, home of what’s currently called the “campus center.” Beloit’s next student union will be something entirely new: It will be integrated with a recreation center in a converted power station along the Rock River.

During the Great Depression, students who were commuting to campus from Rockford, Ill., sought a communal space other students would have found in their dorm lounges. To respond to that need, Beloit took what had been most recently an art hall in South College and converted it into a student lounge, which later became a small student union. Later on, as the student body grew exponentially, the college identified a new student union space in the Smith Building, which lasted from 1957 to 1984. Many alumni remain fond of the homey charms of the old Smith Union building, with its hodgepodge of student organizations, snacks, music, and more.

In 1985, after renovating the space from its previous use as the campus science building, Pearsons Hall was christened Beloit’s “campus center.” Today, Pearsons houses two food service locations, meeting spaces, administrative offices, and the mail center. Student organizations like the Round Table, Beloit Student Congress, and the radio station WBCR reside on the top two floors. While some alumni still wax nostalgic about the snug corners of Smith, Pearsons currently serves the community—as archivist Fred Burwell’86 describes a student union— “as the place where our whole college family meets.”

The Powerhouse will be the college’s next “living room.” Planned to open in fall of 2019, it will offer students the elements of a typical student union and a recreation center all under one roof, integrating areas for socializing, meeting, eating, and studying with spaces for athletics, recreation, and health and wellness.

—Emmy Newman’17

Also In This Issue

  • Will Tomer’17 enjoying their Emerson apartment

    What’s Old is New Again: Inside Emerson Hall


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