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Origin of the Purdue Memorial Union

In the early days of the 20th century, the Purdue University community began to see the need for a place where all campus life could gather and receive alumni and campus visitors. Students had been meeting in a room above Southworth's Bookstore in the Village. Similar institutions had already built student unions or were, at the very least, in the process of building them.

George O. Hayes, a member of the Class of 1912, first proposed the idea of a student union at Purdue University. The student council endorsed the idea and the Class of 1912 established and contributed to a student 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 student union. 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 University looked at the record of her sons and daughters in the service, and in many minds there arose the thought that the student 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 anniversary of the end of the 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 fundraising drives were completely separate from university programs and were sponsored solely by students, interested faculty members, and friends of Purdue University. Those who contributed $100 or more are life members of the Purdue Memorial Union. 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 PMU.

A new 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.

Groundbreaking took place on June 13, 1922, with Virginia C. Meredith chairing the event. David E. Ross, as chairperson 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 Purdue 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 PMU 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. It contained two sets of serving counters, designed to serve 1,000 people per meal. At the east end of the cafeteria was a soda fountain, the predecessor of the Sweet Shop. The Sweet Shop was created as a separate facility in 1927. There was a billiard room located where the Sweet Shop was and a barbershop. A beauty shop for women was added in 1929.

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 University men who had served and given their lives for their country. The lounge spaces adjacent to the Great Hall were intended to accommodate overflow. There was a Men's Lounge, designed for reading, writing and quiet conversation and three reception rooms, one men, one women and one general. The South Ballroom was originally called the Assembly Room and was designed for special dinners or large groups.

When the second floor was completed in 1929, it contained an Alumni Faculty Lounge and a Women's Lounge. 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 PMU, indicated the student union could accommodate 28 different activities at the same time without interfering with each other. In its first year, the PMU 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 student union 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.



The Bronze Busts of the Union

The bronze bust collection on the second floor of the Purdue Memorial Union includes the university’s 11 former presidents through 2012 and two other influential individuals: David Ross, former trustee known for his status as a benefactor of Ross-Ade Stadium, and Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president. Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allowed for the formation of Purdue University and many others across the nation.

The oldest bust, depicting Lincoln, was a gift from the Class of 1904 on its 25th anniversary. It was presented to President Edward Elliott in 1929, and the Union’s Great Hall has been its home since. The university purchased busts of Ross and then-President Elliott in 1946 from Indiana artist Jon Magnus Johnson. The collection continued to grow when Purdue acquired a bust of Frederick Hovde from Don Ingle, an Evansville, Indiana sculptor, in 1983.

The collection remained limited until the 1990s, when the Purdue Research Foundation commissioned busts of the university’s remaining five former presidents from Ingle. A bust of Martin Jischke was added to the commissions after he took office. As Ingle completed the busts over several years, each was positioned in the Great Hall. The busts have since been moved to the Presidential Gallery in the East Main Lounge, just off the Great Hall. The Lincoln bust remains in the Great Hall and the Ross bust is located in the west lobby, next to the International Flag Display.

In 2012, the university unveiled a bust of France A. Córdova, Purdue's 11th president, created by Cincinnati, Ohio artist John Hebenstreit.

"The union is honored to be the caretaker of the Purdue University presidential busts," said Zane Reif, senior director of the Purdue Memorial Union. "It's a reminder of the rich history and milestones of this university and a testament that we are all part of a larger community that spans many generations."

For more information on the history of the busts at the union, follow the links below.

Purdue Past Presidents

Purdue for Life Foundation