Guiding the Purdue Memorial Union project from start to finish was the Chicago architectural firm of Irving and Allen Pond. The Pond brothers already had long and distinguished careers before receiving their call from West Lafayette early in 1921. The large number of private houses, hotels, churches and other public buildings in Chicago and throughout the Midwest that originated from the Ponds' drawing board testified to the great appeal of their designs.
Most notable among satisfied patrons was Jane Addams, the internationally famous settlement-house worker from Chicago. Over two decades, the Ponds constructed for her the ten building Hull House group, which served as a community center for the city's recent immigrants and as a regular meeting place for many urban reformers and university intellectuals.
The last years of the Pond partnership were devoted primarily to a new type of architecture, the student union building. In response to the extracurricular needs of undergraduates and in recognition of the greater role the university was playing in community affairs, many campuses were establishing social centers.
By the late 1920s there were about 35 student unions across the nation. Most Big Ten schools had a union at this time. The University of Michigan boasted a Pond and Pond design for its union as did Michigan State University and the University of Kansas. Completion of the Purdue Memorial Union would make Irving and Allen Pond the most prominent figures in this new architectural field.
The Michigan Union in particular caught the attention of the Purdue Memorial Union building committee as they searched for the right architect. The Ponds were near the end of their five-year project in Ann Arbor at about the time the Purdue people were beginning to formulate and express their conception of the ideal student union. This union idea found a congenial reception in Irving Pond, the major designer of the architectural firm, author of numerous essays and short stories, and an important Chicago social figure. In his description of the plans for the soon-to-be constructed building, Pond maintained in a decidedly utilitarian manner that the layout must be logical and flexible in order to reduce confusion and maintenance costs. But it is clear that for him there was a broader and deeper utility to be achieved. The union must provide an environment in which social activities can train the "massive foundation" of man's life — his emotions. "Psychology teaches," claimed Pond, "that a refined, restrained and noble architectural beauty will uplift the emotional life."
At the Union's dedication ceremonies, Pond stated that he believed that the completed structure was an expression of "poise and physical and spiritual strength and firmness shot through and modified by spiritual aspiration." Its purpose was twofold. First, the broad, simple and harmonious masses of the building would proclaim to the world the freedom and unity of life found within. Second, the many architectural details and ornaments inside and out would minister to the unified life by symbolizing the harmonious interplay of structural forces and hence an ordered society. For Irving Pond, the Union was ultimately a symbol of social solidarity, of life itself.