In the early days of the twentieth century, the Purdue community began to see the need for a place where all University life could center and a place to receive alumni and campus visitors. Students had been meeting in a room above Southworth's Bookstore in the Village. Similar institutions had already built union buildings, or were at least in the process of building them.
George O. Hayes, a member of the Class of 1912, first proposed the idea of a union at Purdue. The student council endorsed the idea, and the Class of 1912 established and contributed to a union fund drive in lieu of a class gift. In previous years, each senior donated $5 toward the completion of the new Memorial Gymnasium. When the Memorial Gymnasium was completed, it was decided that senior donations would go towards a union building. A constitution was prepared and approved at a mass meeting of students and faculty on April 17, 1912. A Financial Campaign Committee consisting of students, faculty, alumni, the University President and a trustee was formed. The fund continued to grow until the onset of World War I.
At the close of the war, Purdue looked at the record of her sons and daughters in the service, and in many minds there arose the thought that the union should stand as a permanent memorial to those 4,013 who had served and those 67 who had died for their country. With this idea, the name "Purdue Memorial Union" came into being.
In 1920, a subscription plan was launched. On Armistice Day of that same year, the first anniversary of the end of World War I, student leaders called a mass meeting in Fowler Hall to ask for student pledges. It is rumored that in order to ensure participation by all, they locked the doors and would not let anyone leave until a pledge had been assigned. All such fund raising drives were completely separate from University program and were sponsored solely by students, interested faculty members and friends of the University. Those who contributed $100 or more are life members of the Purdue Memorial Union, and the names of those who fulfilled their pledge prior to 1947 are permanently inscribed in bronze in a display on the main floor of the building.
A constitution was drafted on September 22, 1921, and Jack Walters as Student President was appointed Chairman of the Board of Directors. Pond and Pond architects from Chicago were chosen to design the building during the winter of 1921-22. A.E. Kemmer from Lafayette would serve as the general contractor.
Ground breaking took place on June 13, 1922 with Virginia C. Meredith chairing the event. David E. Ross, as chairman of the building committee, turned over the first spade of earth, and general contractor A.E. Kemmer plowed the first furrow. The cornerstone was laid at Homecoming, November 25, 1922. In August of 1923, a crowd watched cranes put 25-ton sections of milled limestone in place to form arches over the main entrance of the building. Construction continued through the latter part of 1923 when funds were exhausted. The following year the Purdue Union Association formed as a separate financing corporation and secured a loan of $200,000. In order to support payment of the loan, each student paid a fee of $4 per semester.
The partially completed building opened on September 9, 1924. At that time, the University consisted of 323 faculty and staff and 3,234 students. The sizable sum of $400,000 was still needed for completion. With the necessity of borrowing money, there arose the large question of a reliable plan for procuring and repaying the sum. In 1929, it was deemed necessary and appropriate that the building be deeded to the trustees of the University. Through their financial resources, bonds were issued to acquire the money needed for completion. The student fee, started in 1924, was continued to offer necessary financial security.
When the building opened in 1924, it was still only partially completed. The main floor had temporary pine floors, and the walls and ceilings had not yet been plastered. The second floor was not sufficiently finished in order to be available for use. Construction continued as funds became available, and the original building was completed in 1929.
The ground floor of the original building housed the cafeteria, located on the southwest corner where the Union Commons seating area is now. It contained two sets of serving counters designed to serve 1,000 people per meal. Weekly meal tickets were sold to students for $4.50, and the cafeteria served 240,000 in its first year. At the east end of the cafeteria, in what is now the TV dining room, was a soda fountain, the predecessor of the current Sweet Shop. The Sweet Shop was created as a separate facility in 1927. There was a billiard room located where the Sweet Shop is now and a barbershop in what is now Evans Eye Care. A beauty shop for women was added in 1929. The Billiard Room was first used as a temporary banquet room until the upper floors were completed.
At the center of the main floor was the Great Hall, originally designed as an informal gathering place for the main body of students. It also was the official memorial area for Purdue men who had served and given their lives for their country. The space that is now the Main Lounges was intended to accommodate overflow from the Great Hall. The Men's Lounge, now room 118, was designed for reading, writing and quiet conversation. Glazed doors shut it off from the Great Hall while still giving it a feeling of unity. Three reception rooms, one men's, one women's and one general were located where the Card Office and Rooms 132 and 136 are now. The South Ballroom was originally called the Assembly Room and was designed for special dinners or large groups. There were originally doors in what is now the South Ballroom corridor designed to shut off these rooms for entertainment purposes while activities continued in other parts of the building. Office Space for the building manager and steward was located where Room 103 is now, with stairs leading to an accounting office immediately below on the ground floor.
When the second floor was completed in 1929, it contained an Alumni Faculty Lounge that is now the East Faculty Lounge and the women's Lounge that is now the Business office. The Women's Lounge included a kitchenette where off-campus females could prepare their own lunches. Student activity rooms provided offices and meeting space for the many student activities that had no place of their own and had been using the few rooms in the library.
Reports written in the fall of 1924 by Jack Walters, first general manager of the Union, indicated the Union building could accommodate 28 different activities at the same time without interfering with each other. In its first year, the Union cafeteria, soda fountain and catering operations had gross income of about $54,000, and despite a 50% food cost, reported a net profit of 3.5%
Additions to the building were begun soon after its opening. The first wing of the Union Club Hotel, consisting of 60 guest rooms, was added in 1929. The East Wing, which included the Browsing Library, Bowling Lanes, and the Anniversary Drawing Room, was built in 1936. The South Ballroom was enlarged that same year.