Episode 34: This is how you ‘capture space’

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Episode 34: “This is how you ‘capture space'”

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

Next time you’re in Ann Arbor, you have to come visit the Michigan Union. It re-opened in January after an 18-month renovation, restoration, rehabilitation and all-around makeover. It’s not the first facelift for the building, but this has been the most extensive, well-planned and complete rework of the campus gem, since it opened in 1919. The price came in at $85.2 million. Half of that budget focused on invisible upgrades to energy efficiency and sustainability. With an estimated 37% energy savings, the rest of the budget went toward dazzling visuals that surely would have pleased original architects and alumni, Irving and Allen Pond. The Union actually rests on the site of the Ponds’ childhood home. The multicolored, leaded glass windows, signature arches, and decorative details are just some features that define the brothers’ design aesthetic. I spoke to the architects at Hartman-Cox in Washington, D.C. And as you’ll hear later, I met some welders from Detroit who installed the ironwork in the newly enclosed courtyard. Most of the workers are gone now, but for a few random electricians who it seems are never finished.

Deborah Holdship: Oh my god, do you guys feel like the last men standing?

Electrician: Oh, every single day! Everybody’s almost done.

Holdship: The main floor’s footprint now matches the original 1919 floor plan, including a huge fireplace near the main entrance. Your hostess with the mostest, Susan Pyle, senior director of university unions and auxiliary services, is eager for you to see it. Here’s Susan.

Susan Pile: The fireplace naturally will draw people in. So I think about alumni coming back for homecoming or football weekends, like, I think it communicates, come in and have a seat. And be welcomed here at Michigan, be welcomed at the Michigan Union that we didn’t have that space before down there. It felt like, “Am I allowed to go in there?” Or we had a couple couches and they were always full and there was no place to sit and this new space is really inviting in a way that says welcome, come in and have a seat. And I think the historic detail and historic character of the building has been refreshed in a way that I think is really special to this building, that will enable that to carry forward for another hundred years. So and the study lounge, of course, is still on the first floor where it was. And again, we heard from students “don’t mess with the study lounge”. I’ll never forget a student said “I feel like a Michigan student when I study in there.”

Holdship: Yep!

Pile: So you’ve got this great study space, and you have this great social connection vibrancy happening on that floor, too. So I think it all just sort of speaks to the role of the union on campus and really fostering both of those things.

Holdship: Yeah.

Pile: I think it takes a special skill set, and why I value the architecture team that we had, because we were able to sort of meld those ideas that history and historical architecture can be current and future, and how do we continue to evolve the building so that it does meet those needs in the future? This is Michigan, and our students are worthy of a beautiful space like this.

Nate Fialkoff: It looks beautiful. It’s massive and looks very modern. Also comfy, and it’s for student orgs too, and I’m like deep-in to start Career Fair, which is an event that I’ll be hosting in February, February 7th. And so, a space that says, “Hey, work on student stuff!” I wanted to be here for it.

Hana Yu: It just allows for a lot of open communication and sharing of ideas, which is helpful for the university in general.

Madi Kent: So we are two of the directors of Dance Marathon and we’re here just to kind of get some stuff done, answer some e-mails, make sure that we’re working together and getting everything set for our biggest event in March. But we think this is a really awesome area to have these little cubicles.

Lauren Raich: I haven’t really sat down on the courtyard, but I think this is like a beautiful addition. It really like, I think it modernizes the Union and kind of sets it apart. Like I’ve seen Ohio State’s Union, and it’s gorgeous and I think kind of puts us in that bar. We go up with them too like in respectable area. And even just the conference rooms here, too, is just like a new bar, which we’ve needed for a really long time. And now we can utilize space that we just haven’t been able to before. And it’s just very aesthetically pleasing.

Holdship: All right. Well, there’s some early endorsements from your typical overachieving Wolverines. We had Nate Falcoff, the entrepreneur, freshman Hannah Yu and dance marathons, Maddie Kent and Lauren Rich. And, speaking of aesthetically pleasing, the most visually stunning element of the Union is the newly enclosed courtyard. Remember that open air patio outside Starbucks, which is now SweetWaters, alumni? Today, the courtyard is inside the building covered by a glass roof supported by these huge steel columns. They’re almost curved like palm trees to echo the Ponds’ signature arches. I actually gasped when I saw it the first time.

Pile: I always feel like I need to come in here and let people just sort of take it in for a moment, because it is so different than what we had prior to this. This was exterior space, open air. Certainly Michigan weather makes it challenging, made it challenging for us to really use this space with any kind of regularity or sense of community. And we didn’t have the budget nor really the square footage around the building to expand the building. But this was a way for us to really capture space that would be meaningful to the building, would add the sense of vibrancy and connection and create really a nice connection between the first and second levels of the building. What we heard again from students is they were helping us in the design process was that they wanted this to feel like an indoor diag, but they wanted it to feel like a place of serendipitous interaction and connection with lots of things happening at any given time, needed the block “M” in the middle of the courtyard to replicate the diag, and that block M was actually located on the fourth floor of the building and has now been moved down here to the courtyard, where it will be much more visible and enjoyed.

Holdship: Does it come with the same, you know, rules?

Pile: You know, we’ve been asked that question what the what the campus lore is going to be about that, and it’s not up to me to make these decisions. So I think I think our students will certainly come up with something pretty great for that, if I had to guess.

Holdship: During a recent walk about in the building, I came upon three of the craftsmen who transported, installed, and welded those giant columns. They, too, were marveling at the finished product. First you’ll hear Jesus Molinar, project manager for Detroit’s Ideal Contracting, followed by ironworker Bill Kinzinger. Bill’s daughter is a student at U of M. Here’s Jesus.

Jesus Molinar: Talking about, you know, all the sweat and tears that we put into this building. It’s been amazing. The final product, it looks awesome.

Holdship: I can’t imagine.

Molinar: Yes. And if you would’ve seen before. But boy, when we tore apart everything and opened up everything to install the steel, it was way different.

Holdship: So you guys are the ones who installed the steel?

Molinar: These two guys right here.

Holdship: Oh, you guys, it’s so beautiful!

Bill Kingsinger: I really didn’t know was that important to the university, until I saw it on the news. You know, but yeah, it’s it’s a nice building. It’s an old building. It’s very nice.

Molinar: This all changed from what it was just outside, right?

Kingsinger: Yeah. There was windows right here. This was all this was all exterior.

Holdship: Yeah, so…

Molinar: People, they see it, they don’t understand what it took to get it here. I mean, he… He’s my welder. He welded all this together. These people these came out in four pieces, these trees, they call them trees. And I had him weld them together and make it look like one piece. It was never, you know, it took some time and we did it in a cold winter. But I mean, it looks good. We come on here now. Go, man. Remember that? That was hard, you know?

Holdship: Yeah. It’s like big dreams, you know?

Molinar: They flew them in blind from the street, from State Street.

Holdship: I saw the pictures, yeah!

Molinar: And then these guys were directing it. Bill was outside coordinating these guys we’re receiving down here.

Holdship: Pressure!

Kingsinger: When they told us we were going to do it. I’m was like, “oh boy!” Trucking it here, was a hard thing to because it’s big. Yeah. You know, when it came up the street and they were going to bring it up, State Street, the tops in one piece. And I said we can’t! We’ll wipe out every parked car on State Street. I said, “no!”

Holdship: Haha thank you for caring!

Kingsinger: You know, I said, we have to we have to bring it out pieces. It was a challenge! In the upper dome actually, are fabricated which is our company. We built it underground in the shop, put it together a hundred percent. He was there and we welded a lot of it up and then we took it apart in big chunks and shipped it here. And where did that happen? In Downtown Detroit, off of Clark Street, at Ideal Contracting.

Holdship: Okay…

Kingsinger: I said I want to make sure this fits when we get up in the air. You know? So, my daughter’s in school here. And I said, man, these kids really want this space.

Holdship: She’ll say oh my god, my dad did this!

Kingsinger: Yes. She would wander through every once in a while. I said, when she needs money.

Holdship: (Laughs) Yeah! Haha that’s so great!

Kingsinger: Yeah. I’m happy for her. She kept asking me. I said, I can’t take you in there. You can’t see this until it’s done. I can’t show you pictures, you know. Because they kept asking all her friends, is it gonna be done? I said oh, it’ll be done on time.

Holdship: Though you’ll be tempted to look up, up into the open air of the courtyard. Ironworker to Toujean Lozier wants to draw your attention to the floor as well. Listen in. Here’s Toujean with Bill Kinzinger and Jesus Molenaar.

Tijean Losier: One thing, you probably don’t see these things, I was just telling Bill this morning. You see that hardwood floor?

Holdship: Uh huh!

Losier: Well, they look like little pieces of square? These were installed piece by piece.

Holdship: No!

Losier: That long. And then telling the stories about it.

Kingsinger: That’s Mosquick Hardwood from Texas. Okay? So they it’s engrain. It’s only about a half inch thick. Each block is individually laid one at a time. And they worked around the clock. I want to say about three and a half weeks.

Losier: You only see one floor. You know, you don’t see all the pieces like a puzzle. You know?

Holdship: Like twenty five thousand pieces! (Laughs)

Losier: Oh, my God!

Molinar: And the floor base too, because after the wood floor got installed, the base had to be cut piece by piece because the floor has waves. So you don’t want, when you install that metal you can’t have gaps up and down.

Holdship: Oh, yeah.

Molinar: So these guys were measuring each piece.

Kingsinger: That black steel base was a lot of labor putting that in

Holdship: I love that craftsmanship.

Molinar: It looks like crown molding. But in the floor, all that tall steel.

Kingsinger: That’s steel we had to cut it to fit.

Holdship: Wow. Beautiful. You guys are amazing!

Kingsinger: They would always ask me “how long is this gonna take?” Hah! I was like, it’s never been done before. I don’t know.

Holdship: Well, here’s a question, what’s it like to work on a building that you have to kind of match or marry the old with the new?

Kingsinger: With this building, it was very, it was difficult because we would open up that old part form 1950 and you go, huh? That’s not what the drawings. It’s all different. We were just talking about over here where this steel is tied into this building over here. They had a drawing that was from 1953 that told us what we were going to be tying into, what it looked like if we cut the wall open. I said we got a huge problem. It doesn’t look like this at all. So we had to go re-engineer everything and redesign it and how we’re going to make the connections. There’s a lot of unforseens here when we opened it up.

Holdship: I was chatting with those guys outside the Idea Hub, formerly the Union’s Billiard’s room. I know, I know. Everyone loved the billiards room, but so few people used it. There are 1600 student organizations on today’s campus who now have space to do business. Some of the tables actually are repurposed from the Union’s long-gone bowling alley. When I told Cognitive Science junior Nate Fialkov he was sitting in the former billiards room, beloved to so many nostalgic alumni devastated by its demise. He looked at me like, “OK, boomer.”

Fialkoff: Like the day that the Union Opened there were some food trucks and this guy, like all the student’s were waiting for the food trucks. And this guy comes out. He’s like, “you know, the Union used to be the best place to play billiards. (Sigh) Look what they did to it. Left. Oh, OK… this is way cooler!

Holdship: So you get the idea, students are loving the new building and you probably will, too – even without the billiard’s. You’ve just got to come back to sit by the fire, wander around, and notice all the details those colored panes of glass that caught our floor, the wrought iron, the throwback light fixtures and some newly revealed limestone arches that lead straight into the future. OK. That’s it for now. Find “Listen in, Michigan” and subscribe at Google Play Music, iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher. We’ll be back for more next month. Until then, as always, Go Blue!

A little bit of soul

Enclosed courtyard at the Union

The newly enclosed courtyard is an example of ‘captured space’ in the Michigan Union. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

Scan a list of architecture terms and you will find delicious words like balustrade and bousillage, jack arch and jettied story. There’s pergola, saltbox, and poteaux-en-terre.

But soul? You won’t find it among the technical vocabulary.

And yet it was the Michigan Union’s very “soul” at stake when the administration moved to renovate, rehabilitate, and make over the 100-year-old building, which has been in continuous use as a student union since opening its doors in 1919.

Brick house

Designed by Ann Arbor natives, alumni, and brothers Irving and Allen Pond, the Michigan Union has undergone various upgrades, additions, and deletions over the years. We’ve all heard about the swimming pool, barbershop, and bowling alley that no longer exist. (Now you can add the billiards room to that list.)

But this most-recent 18-month, $85.2-million makeover required a complete shutdown that intensified the pressure to deliver a stunning result — on time. The architects’ shared experience spanned student unions, historic restoration, and a vision beyond bricks and mortar.

Integrated Design Solutions (IDS) in Troy, Mich., was the project’s lead architect with Milwaukee’s Workshop Architects and Washington, D.C.’s, Hartman-Cox Architects.

“This building has an original soul, created by Pond & Pond, for a very specific purpose,” says Lee Becker, partner at Hartman-Cox. (The firm is noted for its sensitivity to site and context.) The architects had a singular mission that capitalized on each firm’s specialty, he says. “The team’s  goal was to pull it back together and restore that soul.”

One stroll through today’s Michigan Union, and it’s evident the collaboration clicked. So much is the same, and yet so much is different. And that’s the whole point.

“In every case, you really try to get inside the head of the architects who created the building,” says Becker. “Every place has its own character and this building’s character is very particular to U-M.”

A very, very fine house

Outside the Idea Hub

Students utilize new cubicles and other study spaces, complete with a view of the enclosed courtyard. (Image: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.)

Hartman-Cox partner Mary Kay Lanzillotta says she spent “a lot of time” in the archives of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, poring over boxes and boxes of photos for early inspiration. She was most interested in pictures of students using the Union throughout the century.

“[U-M] has an amazing collection of buildings that create the heart of the University,” she says. “It is such a pleasure to work in spaces where people respect the buildings they’ve been given. Now we are giving the building new life for the next generation.”

A significant decision to return the first floor to its original 1919 footprint gave the project a clear focus. The plan opened space, recreated walkways, and delivered more natural light than past iterations. Terrazzo floors, limestone arches, and wrought-iron railings were revealed. All 540 stained glass windows came out to be cleaned and restored. The comprehensive overhaul gave the first two floors “back to the students,” as administrative offices moved upstairs and out of the way. An extensive overhaul of the building’s infrastructure promises a 37-percent energy savings and a 20-percent water consumption savings.

Heart of glass

Perhaps the most bedazzling aspect of the first floor is an exterior courtyard that has come inside. Giant steel “trees” support a glass dome similar to the Law School’s Robert B. Aikens Commons, another collaboration between Hartman-Cox and IDS. The curved supports echo the Ponds’ signature arches. Ironworkers delivered them in pieces and welded them onsite until individual seams disappeared.

“We had to hit those columns and come up with a geometry that didn’t necessarily match the building, but could cover it at all different elevations,” says Lanzillotta. Becker chimes in: “The contractors had amazing challenges and I was never not surprised by what they were capable of. They swung parts of that canopy right over the building.” (Hear the contractors describe those challenges in the podcast above.)

Block M at Union

This editor has decided to start a rumor that you absolutely MUST step on the Block M in the ‘indoor Diag’ or you will flunk your first bluebook test. Wait, do they still have bluebook tests?

The newly “captured space” transforms the building from a staid and elegant antique into a sparkling hybrid of modern lines and sleek materials. The courtyard floor, designed to simulate the energy of an “indoor Diag,” is composed of more than 30,000 individually placed blocks of Texas mesquite wood. A Block M floorplate has moved down from the fourth floor and sits squarely in the busy footpath. One can only imagine what lore the talisman will generate between today and 2120.

For now, the campus community is just happy to use the building again, complete with ongoing upgrades. On a recent walkabout, we met technicians, craftspeople, and other workers bringing the job to completion. (Vendors and restaurants are still moving in.)

Walking past a pair of electricians tangled up in wires, it felt natural to ask: “Do you guys ever feel like the last man standing?”

One head peered down from inside the ceiling.

“Every. Single. Day.”

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

Amy White, BS ’95, is director of the Michigan Union. As a student, she never considered the Ponds’ pedagogic intent for the building. That changed when she returned to her alma mater as an employee. For the past few years, she has heard countless times from members of every generation, “Don’t mess with our building.”

It would appear everyone listened. Even the smallest details received attention. Repurposed wood from the original bowling alley (long in storage) now is used for tables in a space called the Idea Hub. Doors that used to hang on long-defunct phone booths now appear on utility closets. Artisans removed wood from windows in which former students had carved their initials only to refresh and replace the same wood in the same windows.

“The new space looks and feels and operates like the Michigan Union in a way that makes me proud to be here as part of the renovation,” White says. “My hope is that we did alumni and students proud.”

Susan Pile, director of Unions and Auxiliary Services, says entering the refreshed space is like visiting someone’s great-grandmother’s home. It’s warm, the furniture is comfortable, and, most importantly, you’re allowed to use it.

“Things change over time, but the historic fabric remains,” Pile says. “This is Michigan. These students deserve a beautiful space.”

(Lead image: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.)


  1. Derrick Foster - 1979, 1981

    I’m looking forward to visiting the Union on a future visit. I remember presenting in the Ballroom, in maybe 1976, with the Markley MAC annual banquet and awards event. Beautiful place and beautiful people… wonderful memories! Go Blue! Hope to return, soon!


  2. Mike Goulder - 1982

    So glad to see That the old Union has a new lease on life!


  3. David Berson - 1979, 1982

    Very much looking forward to seeing the new Union on my next trip Ann Arbor.

    It is, of course, “A very, very, very fine house.”


  4. David French - 1977, 1979

    Looking forward to seeing the “new” Union. I am grateful that the University employed the talented team of architects and contractors to pull off this ambitious and important remodeling project! Go Blue!


  5. Donna Lou Monroe Ritter - 1961 BS; 1967 MD

    I think the cafeteria with a north facing entrance was new. Women could use that door but could not enter through the front door. I doubt that lasted long after I was there. I never viewed the Union as a bastion of anything except male privilege. I’m glad it is open and looking good after all these years


  6. Marcia Dykstra - 1975

    I worked in the Pendleton room of the Michigan Union as part of my work-study program during 1973-1975. Sometime after that the Union held an Open House and people were allowed to scavenge random unused items. I scored two of the lovely ceramic sculptural blocks that were inset in various places around the Union. The extra ones were stored under a staircase. I still have them on display in my home. Excited to see the new space – it was a wonderful work environment back in the day.


  7. Marjorie Korenblit - 1965

    I remember bowling downstairs, having a late night cup of tea and the world’s best pecan roll while listening to the juke box in the MUG, and rushing back to my dorm, Helen Newberry, before 11pm, weekday curfew for Freshmen.
    I didn’t hear Dr. King speak in Hill Auditorium. My boyfriend thought it was too dangerous. So a short time later I went to hear a lesser known activist speak in a crowded room upstairs at the Union – Malcom X.


  8. Mike Bailey - 1973

    Can not wait to return and visit the upgraded Union. Spent many hours working in the bowling alley and as a part time janitor from 1969 to 1974. Still get shudders when I walk into the many bathrooms which were my primary cleaning responsibility as low seniority janitor! Also, spent a lot of money in those old phone booths calling my future wife during my freshman year!! Love the Union and missed it greatly the past two football seasons.


  9. Shelley Ferrand - 75; 77

    I loooved that bowling alley. Especially loved “M” Pen days, often occurring during holidays when few were in campus, when a strike gave you a free game. It was the single motivator that made me a very good bowler—Lol.
    Can’t wait to see the renovated Union.


  10. David Taylor - 1986

    I remember dancing under the stars on scented summer nights in the U-Club court yard, experiencing the innocence of early punk rock mosh pits in the Ballroom and attending wonderfully intimate film screenings in tiny meeting spaces. The Union houses many really fun memories.The new work looks like a promising incubator for the next generations’ memories.


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