A Short History of the UC Davis Memorial Union

The Memorial Union (MU) is the main student union at the University of California, Davis and is the center, both figuratively and literally, of the UC Davis campus. It has undergone numerous changes and renovations, reflecting the tremendous growth of the campus during the past fifty years. The Memorial Union was completed in 1955 and dedicated in honor of 128 UC Davis students and alumni who lost their lives in military service from World War I through World War II. [Currently, the Gold Star Aggie wall houses the Golden Memory Book. This book lists all of the names of former UC Davis students, now numbering 135, who lost their lives in service.] The $1 million cost was funded by private support from the campus community, including funds raised by one of the earliest campaigns of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association. This one story facility included a dining commons, kitchen, faculty club, student lounge, Alumni Association offices, a soda fountain and a student store.

Freeborn Hall was added to the complex in 1961, the same year that the Department of Dramatic Arts, later renamed the Department of Theatre and Dance, was established. Opening with a performance by the San Francisco Symphony, Freeborn Hall offered the first performance venue to the campus and remained the campus’ main venue for large groups and performances until the Mondavi Center opened its doors in 2002. During the 60’s and 70’s, it hosted such groups as the Grateful Dead and Simon and Garfunkel. Today, Freeborn Hall still holds large trade shows as well as some of the students’ favorite popular acts.

In 1966, with the help of another building campaign and a student fee, the campus completed the construction of a large addition to the Memorial Union. It included the second, third and fourth floors over the main building, as well as the Games Area and the main branch of the UC Davis Bookstore. The main building, known as the tower, housed additional lounge space, offices for ASUCD, and student programs. The Games Area included the first and only bowling alley built in the city of Davis, and remains a popular destination for students and community members alike. The Coffee House, a student operated eatery, opened its doors in the east wing of the building in 1968, promoting its “from scratch” menu items it is still famous for today in its newly renovated facility.

The first floor and the bookstore were remodeled and expanded in the early 90’s for $11 million. The project added 18,200 square feet in dining, lounge, recreational, and bookstore space. A new lobby and student service retail space were added to the first floor of the building. The Coffee House was relocated to the west side of the building and increased its kitchen and seating space to accommodate the needs of a growing student population.

In 1998, the Memorial Union complex underwent a major seismic renovation and took that opportunity to reconfigure space for student use. The project added stiffening elements to the south side of the Memorial Union, and removed a concrete canopy from Freeborn Hall that was considered a major earthquake hazard. A new elevator was installed to the north entry and all the rest rooms were updated to make them accessible by wheelchair. The MU Art Gallery got a major face-lift as did all of the office space in the tower. A new computer lab, called the MU Station, was added to the building in partnership with the Campus IET Department, and was the most highly used computer lab on campus.

The Memorial Union underwent an almost two year renewal process ending in May of 2017.  The comprehensive renovation took the historic Memorial Union and brought it to life again as a dynamic on-campus destination for students and others in the UC Davis community. The project maintained the integrity of the Memorial Union as a historic facility, reinforcing its importance to the campus, and returning to the architect's original design of open floor plan. Lounge areas that were designed to be open spaces had been walled off and divided, and a 1990's revision added a slant to the entire north end of the building. The new construction reverses those changes and has much more open lounge space. It also transforms the hallway at the north end of the building into a two-story atrium, opening to the building’s interior. In addition a new, inviting entry to the Memorial Union was created that continues the historic centennial walk that starts at the end of Howard Way, goes through the MU Bus Terminal, through the Memorial Union's new entry, out to the Quad where it terminates at what used to be the front doors of Shields Library.

The Memorial Union’s original purpose is now highlighted, with an entire wall dedicated to Gold Star Aggies — those who died in military service. The Golden Memory Book, which contains their names, will be displayed in a case, with its pages accessible on a digital display.

The Games Area, located in the MU basement, also got a makeover, losing the cabinet arcade games in favor of networked console video games, a new lounge area and numerous televisions. Four bowling lanes were removed in a shuffle to give the bookstore more space, leaving 12 lanes, and creating a new home for the 7 billiards tables.

In addition, a number of critical and strategic improvements were made to meet the needs of a growing student population, In addition the renewal enhanced the Campus Store creating a new layout and design offering more space to textbooks. This project provided additional retail space and services needed by our student population, which has nearly tripled since the original UC Davis Bookstore was completed in 1966.

As the campus continues to evolve to meet the growing needs of our students, the Memorial Union has evolved with it. Through every renovation project, the Union has sought to address the social and academic needs of every UC Davis student by increasing opportunities for excellent services and programs.