Campus History

Memorial Union’s Swimming Pier


Photo: Jeff Miller

When spring exits the stage after what is typically the briefest of appearances in Madison, students embrace summer with flip-flops and bare arms — often glistening with suntan lotion — and head toward Lake Mendota.

If the Memorial Union Terrace is UW–Madison’s patio, the lake’s T-shaped swimming pier, with its white benches and tall, red lifeguard chairs, is its beach. The pier, which is often in place by the first week of June, is a fond campus memory for Gene Wright MD’79.

“I would wait (usually along with several others) for the last section to be set in place and then be among the first to jump in the lake (usually fully clothed!),” Wright wrote to On Wisconsin. “That was fun. Do the kids still do that?”

The team of carpenters that installs the pier — a process that takes three to four days — has not witnessed anyone doing cannonballs in recent memory. This year, the pier’s summer will be cut short when it is removed in mid-August to make way for a number of improvements along the lake’s shoreline. The work will include reconstruction of the stone steps that lead into the lake and removal of the old concrete pier near the Red Gym, to improve water quality in the area.

More than 20,000 people visit the pier each year, and on a warm day, it can be hard to carve out a piece of real estate. Young men and women sit shoulder to shoulder in some spots, legs dangling toward the water. Others lounge on towels, heating up in the sun and then jumping into the lake to cool off. They repeat the cycle over the course of a lazy afternoon. The sound of a splash, followed by gales of laughter, interrupts the stillness.

The pier normally stays in place until about Labor Day, when it’s removed before the water gets too cold, starting the countdown for sunbathers until it returns. This time around, the countdown will be a little longer.

Published in the Summer 2012 issue


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