Campus History

Reasons to Miss the Old Union South

The austere building had its charms.

Black and white photo of students outside the old Union South during the 1970s

The Brutalist-style building served campus from 1971 to 2009. UW Archives TK09072842

Before the Union South we know today, there was … the old Union South. The austere, Brutalist-style building, erected to accommodate a growing campus, served students and alumni from 1971 to 2009.

The structure was originally intended to have a pedestrian bridge connecting it to neighboring buildings at the second-floor level. According to Ted Crabb ’54, emeritus director of the Wisconsin Union, Union South was to be a major link in a partially enclosed, elevated walkway system that began at Park Street. It was to continue to Union South, crossing over Johnson Street and University Avenue and ending at the first-floor entrance to Van Hise Hall. However, the plan was vetoed at the last minute by the State Building Commission.

“The Union South construction drawings were so far along,” says Crabb, “that the decision was made to continue with the plans that assumed that the second floor would be the primary entry to the building.”

Union South soon became home to the Badger Bash, a popular celebration with the UW Marching Band and Spirit Squad prior to home football games. The band had previously warmed up in random spaces around Camp Randall Stadium. But in 1972, the Wisconsin Union’s assistant director Merrill “Corky” Sischo suggested the band use the area surrounding Union South. As word spread, crowds of spectators formed, and a new football tradition was born. The bash also included a postgame celebration with polkas performed by local jazz legend Doc De Haven ’58.

The Carousel Cafeteria on the second floor was often transformed into a dance space in the evenings. Union South hosted various other programs, including jazz concerts, the Greater University Tutoring Service and Volunteer Services Office, blood drives, SOAR (a summer student orientation program), and international conversation and coffee hours.

But soon, the campus outgrew even this second space. It was demolished, and the new Union South opened in 2011. The warmth of the new building provided a welcome contrast to the stark design of its predecessor, and according to communications director Shauna Breneman, staff members very rarely hear alumni or guests say that they miss the previous Union South.

Published in the Spring 2021 issue


  • Genie Ogden February 22, 2023

    I played in a chess tournament there, in 1972, right after Bobby Fisher won the International Championship. They expected only a few people, but over 100 showed up. They didn’t have enough chess sets, so they asked people to bring their own. I brought my dad’s, which has intricate pieces, like the Knights are on rearing horses, the castles are on top of elephants. People I played said they were distracting. I lost 5 games, tied 1, and won 1 after my opponent didn’t show up.
    Years later, our daughters played in a tournament there.

  • Dan Ross March 8, 2024

    I actually liked the old Union South–to me, it seemed modern and sleek, and the brown brick and angles made it seem less Brutalist. And I liked the fresh-baked chocolate chip pecan cookies they sold at the ice cream counter, still hot and gooey, and the atrium skylight. Maybe it was the cookie smell (now all the Unions have is plastic-wrapped boredom). But, it always did seem too small and crowded in 1989 onwards.
    THere was in-ground sculpture/art/plaza/seating thing between Union South and Computer Sciences (& Statistics), I think it was called something like Rotational Symmetry or something (not that, it wasn’t symmetric). That I assume went to a rubble pile with the new construction.

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