One of Madison's most beloved summertime activities is to sit for hours on the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union Terrace, bedecked in its iconic Sunburst chairs and showcasing an unbeatable view of Lake Mendota.
With a wide array of eateries and nooks to whittle away an afternoon, it’s the local spot to grab a Spotted Cow and soak up the sun.
At nearly 100 years old, the Terrace has picked up plenty of history and interesting facts. In that spirit, here are 20 things you might not know about Madison’s famed Memorial Union Terrace.
1. While the idea for the terrace was first mentioned in 1904 by then-UW president Charles Van Hise, it wasn’t completed until October 5, 1928.
2. The Rathskeller officially opened in 1928. Pronounced rath-skeh-lr, this German word translates to “the basement of a town hall,” and was commonly known in Germany as a meeting place for socializing and grabbing a cold brew. It nods to Wisconsin’s German heritage
3. In 1927, ahead of its opening, German artist Eugene Hausler painted the German murals featured throughout The Rathskeller. Six of the eight original murals portrayed scenes from university life, spotlighting things like athletics and student government.
4. The first Union wedding was held in 1929. Today, the Union hosts about 120 weddings a year.
5. In that same year, the Union featured hickory chairs, aiming for a summer resort vibe. The wood couldn’t handle the lakeside weather, and they were eventually swapped for metal chairs.
Events at the Terrace
6. The Rathskeller was originally open only to men. Women were given access in 1941.
7. Some of the Sunburst-style chairs we know and love began to appear on the Terrace in photos around 1938.
8. The Hoofer Sailing Club was started in 1939 with 450 students. The club is still active today.
9. UW was the first public university in the country to serve beer. The university approved beer sales at the Union in 1933. At the time, all beer sold at the Union had to have an ABV of 3.2 percent or lower.
10. Dances at the Memorial Union were way popular in the 1940s. In 1947, one dance swelled to 2,100 students, which forced the university to put a cap on attendance. A maximum of 1,500 students were permitted to attend dances from then on.
11. Eating at the Union was also popular. It’s estimated up to 11,000 meals per day were ordered at The Rathskeller during the 1950s.
12. The university had a strict dress code in the 1950s that was eventually relaxed for the Union Cafeteria and The Rathskeller. In 1954, the university started allowing students to wear Bermuda shorts.
13. A style of chair called a “Deauville” design (simple rungs making up the back in metal from top to bottom) popped up between the hickory chairs and the Sunburst chairs we know today. They were removed in the 1960s because the lake air caused them to rust.
14. Those instantly recognizable Sunburst chairs began taking over the Terrace in the early 1970s and have continued to stick around because of their durable, can-handle-the-lakeside-locale temperament.
15. The Terrace debuted with more than 700 chairs in the Sunburst design after it was refurbished in 1981.
16. Have you ever wondered about the color choices of the chairs? There’s some symbolism behind those iconic brights. The colors nod to Wisconsin’s farming traditions (the green chairs are “John Deere green”) and are considered to represent spring and fall, which is when most students hang out at the Terrace.
17. Many rooms within the Union look just as they did when it opened in 1928, except for a bit of cosmetic restoration here and there and some modern improvements.
18. One of the most adored aspects of the Terrace is its “tree canopy.” Dead terrace trees go on to live a second life as repurposed decorative touches within the Union. For example, the Stiftskeller bar and Strada lakefront wall both display wood taken from Terrace oak trees.
19. Between the Red Gym and the Memorial Union, you’ll find the new Alumni Park, which serves as a small outdoor art gallery and pays homage to the university.
20. Today, you have to be a Union member to enjoy some of the perks (i.e., ordering beer). But never fear—you can buy a single-day membership and revel in all that the Memorial Union Terrace has to offer.
The Terrace is open Spring through Fall. Opening and closing dates are dependent upon weather. Current Terrace hours are 8 AM - midnight on Sundays, 7 AM - midnight Mondays through Wednesdays, 7 AM to 1 AM Thursdays and Fridays, 8 AM to 1 AM on Saturdays.