The New University Club

The campus dining staple transitions to casual food service.

A person walks by a counter cafe stocked with baked goods, coffee and other beverages.

The building retains the historic charm that makes it the UW’s grandest study spot. Colton Mansavage

The University Club, a fixture of campus dining on Library Mall for more than a century, was one of tens of thousands of restaurants to fall victim to the pandemic in 2020. It even served as a temporary COVID-19 testing site after the club’s board of directors dissolved it as an affiliated private social organization and integrated it fully into UW–Madison.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Union, it’s back in the food business.

Reopened on January 23, the dining option is now called Union Commons at the University Club. Patrons will still recognize the building’s Tudor Revival style. The interior is largely preserved, with its dark, intricate woodwork, stained-glass windows, hanging chandeliers, classical décor, and intimate lighting.

“We prioritized retaining the University Club’s historic charm, beautiful ambiance, and elegance,” says Shauna Breneman, communications director for the Wisconsin Union.

Contrasting with the traditional atmosphere is the space’s shift from table service to casual dining. There’s a counter in the main entryway that serves coffee, cider, and baked goods (plus beer and wine for older guests), as well as a lunch counter in the dining area with house-made soup and toasted sandwiches to-go. That’s not to say Union Commons rushes its guests out the door; they’re invited to sit down at tables to eat or to pull out a book at the grandest study spot on campus. They can also relax on the front porch during warmer months. The space is open to the public and served more than 150 customers per day in its first semester of operation.

The University Club formed in 1907 as a members-only organization for UW–Madison faculty and alumni. It found a physical home the next year at the old residence of UW vice president John B. Parkinson at the corner of State and Murray Streets (the latter now the pedestrian East Campus Mall). Still at the same location, the current University Club building comprises a series of later additions; the original Parkinson house was demolished in 1924. Initial reported membership neared 340 people, with 15 of them living full time at the club for $3.50 per week.

The University Club has been a staple of campus long enough for history to repeat itself. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the club mobilized into an infirmary for sick students. And in 1933, financial hardships from the Great Depression necessitated a transfer of ownership to the UW. Fortunately, it thrived from there — and should again.

Published in the Summer 2023 issue


  • M J Feeney Gebhardt August 7, 2023

    I love the University Club, what are the hours now, for breakfast, lunch etc?

  • Niki August 8, 2023

    The Union Commons Cafe is currently open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, with grab-and-go lunch available 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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