Sneak peek shows spectacular Memorial Union taking shape

The new building, a campus centerpiece, promises to be a point-of-pride for generations at UND

Taken in late January, this photo shows the high ceilings and central staircase of the new UND Memorial Union’s south entrance hall, under construction. An artist’s rendering of the space is below. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Here’s a toasty thought for a frostbite-in-five-minutes day such as today: This time next year, when the mercury plummets to 10, 20 and even 30 below zero, the sunniest and warmest place on campus might just be the new UND Memorial Union.

“Having lots of windows was such a huge priority to the students, when they were asked about this,” said Cassie Gerhardt, UND’s associate vice president for student affairs and diversity, referring to the surveys that solicited students’ opinions in advance of the building’s design and construction.

“And it shows. I mean, there are so many windows in that place” – beautiful, floor-to-ceiling windows, some of which will tint gently and automatically to reduce glare.

As a result, “just imagine being in there on a day like today, when it’s so cold outside but the sun is so bright,” she said.

“You’ll feel that warmth. You’ll enjoy the sun.” And you’ll do so in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the old Memorial Union, which generations of students enjoyed but was fluorescent-lit throughout, she noted.

The windows are just the first of many features that visitors to the still-under-construction building have been noting. The new UND Memorial Union is scheduled be fully open for the fall semester of this year; UND staff members likely will start moving into their Memorial Union offices in July.

And as hardhat-wearing visitors in January and February can attest, the more you learn about the Memorial Union’s features, the more excited you are about the prospect of the building bustling with students, faculty and staff, Gerhardt and others who’ve taken the tour report.

This artist’s rendering shows the new UND Memorial Union’s south entrance hall, which now is under construction (as this story’s lead photo shows). The three-story Memorial Union will include study and meeting spaces with up-to-date technology, expanded dining and retail options, indoor/outdoor gathering spaces, and more.

Destination space

For example, the abundance of natural light (thanks to the windows) already is obvious on a tour. So is the building’s sheer size: At 158,351 square feet, the new Memorial Union is about 9 percent bigger than the old. The main ballroom is bigger, there’s more room for offices as well as student socializing than there was before, and the cavernous, high-ceilinged main entryway is a much more impressive space than in the old structure.

In addition, because the new building’s north wall is closer to University Avenue than the one in the old building was, the building’s scale in a north-south direction is especially impressive.

“When we went on a tour, the size was the first thing I mentioned to (Student Body) Vice President Kaelan Reedy,” said Matt Ternus, UND student body president.

“I was like, ‘This is a lot bigger than the blueprints made it look.’ It’s a big, beautiful building.”

The scale means the building can accommodate services that had been spread out around campus, notably the International Center and Student Diversity & Inclusion, among others. There is an opportunity to re-anchor that part of campus and make the Memorial Union a true centerpiece on campus, said Cara Halgren, UND vice-president for student affairs and diversity.

“With the food vendors, the gathering spots and the student services, the union is going to be a space that will really draw people in,” Halgren said.

“Some of the feedback we heard from students previously was that there wasn’t enough reason for people to go to the union; it wasn’t a destination space. Now, I think it will be for students, and I’m very excited about that.”

This view of the new Memorial Union’s main ballroom shows both the expanse of space – the ballroom is considerably larger than the ballroom was in the old building – and the wall of south-facing “smart glass” (electronically tinting) windows. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

The UND brand

Speaking of food vendors, Chick-fil-A, Panda Express and North Dakota’s biggest Starbucks will be found in the building – and that, too, is no accident. “This is another feature the students had asked for: they said they wanted trendy, popular food outlets,” Gerhardt said.

“They wanted brand recognition. They preferred that over all UND dining services concepts .”

The social stairway – a tiered gathering space – reflects another student priority: plenty of room to study, work on projects, and talk.

And throughout the building, UND brand standards are evident, from the UND Green infused in the carpet to the UND seal embedded in the main level’s terrazzo floor.

“Students told us they wanted to know they’re at UND,” Gerhardt said.

Don’t misunderstand, she said; the old Memorial Union served its purpose very well. “It was functional, and it was lovingly taken care of by generations of staff,” Gerhardt continued. “But we didn’t have the brand standards and the advanced expectations that the University has today. So: Yes, in this MU, everyone will know they are at UND!”

The net result – the new Memorial Union – promises to be a terrific asset for UND, one that students and alumni can take special pride in, Ternus said.

That’s because in 2018, UND students voted to boost their own student fees to pay for the new building, which is estimated to cost around $80 million. Ternus campaigned for the measure and voted “yes,” though he’ll be graduating in May and won’t be able to enjoy the new building as a student.

The brick pillars in this photo are among the many decorative touches that will add beauty to the new UND Memorial Union’s interior. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Proud of UND’s infrastructure

“It all comes back to the fact that students understand the importance of infrastructure,” Ternus said.

“That’s true for classrooms, and it’s especially true for student unions, which are so important to a campus. They’re a centralized hub for organizations, for networking, and for many other aspects of student life.”

The new Memorial Union promises to be all that and more to generations of UND students. That means the 2018 vote was a true milestone in the history of the University, Halgren said.

And make no mistake, the measure’s passage was not a sure thing: “There are campuses all over the United States where students are not willing to support this kind of endeavor,” she said.

“And yet here at UND, thanks to a lot of hard work by several generations of student leaders and others, the students expressed a strong commitment to the University and our campus. I think it’s really inspirational, and I hope that when students are on campus and come back to visit as alumni, they’ll know what a significant impact they had.

“They should really be proud of this space.”