BY CINDY GERLACH
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY PURDUE MEMORIAL UNION
From the outside, the Purdue Memorial Union stands unchanged, a testament to the past hundred years. The stately brick structure, a mainstay of the Purdue University campus for the better part of a century, welcomes students and visitors alike, as a place to gather and commune.
Yet the once-familiar interior is undergoing a transformation. In some ways, it will look much as it always has, with its architectural themes remaining strong and constant. Yet in so many other ways — some obvious, some more subtle — the Union is recreating itself, thanks to a massive renovation project.
And all in the name of Purdue.
The Union, as so many students have experienced it over the past century, is much like its counterparts around the country. There was a wave of student union construction following World War I; these gothic-inspired buildings opened on campuses in the early 1920s as a monument to men and women from these universities who had fought and died in that war.
Pond and Pond, the architectural firm commissioned to build the Purdue Memorial Union, also built student unions in the 1920s at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the University of Kansas.
The Purdue Memorial Union opened its doors in 1924. Shops, restaurants and even a bowling alley, along with offices for student services, are all housed in the Union; the Union Club Hotel opened in 1929 when the building was completed.
The basic function of the Union has not, and will not change, says Zane Reif, senior director of the Purdue Memorial Union. But some intentional rebranding has been worked into the renovations.
“We didn’t have any kind of homage to Purdue,” Reif says. “You didn’t walk in and feel like you were at Purdue.”
The $47 million project was funded in part by a gift from Bruce White, an alumnus and founder of White Lodging, a hotel property management group. An additional gift comes from the Dean and Barbara White Foundation.
The first phase of the project, which includes a renovation of the Union Club Hotel, wrapped up in August. The hotel, whose rooms had felt a little tired and dated, has reopened and now sports an updated, more boutique feel. With 182 rooms, it’s still the largest hotel in Tippecanoe County, says Reif, despite losing about 10 rooms as the space was reconfigured.
The lobby, with its new skylight, has a more open and airy feel about it. With select Purdue-themed memorabilia on the walls, the connection to Purdue is much more evident. All guest rooms have been updated; the fitness center was enlarged and reconfigured. A new lobby bar and a hidden patio add to the amenities guests will enjoy.
And, of course, the hotel is a learning lab, as students in the Hospitality & Tourism Management Program take advantage of the real-life experience of seeing an actual hotel in operation.
Epicureans will delight in the new restaurant, 8Eleven Modern Bistro — the name is yet another Purdue reference, paying tribute to two of NASA’s programs, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The upscale menu features an eclectic mix of American dishes with French touches, along with farm-inspired cocktails and local craft beers. And the chef’s kitchen is on display, with large windows allowing visitors to watch food preparation in a space that doubles as a training ground for students.
Bundled with the Boiler Up Bar, which features a bourbon room and signature cocktails, guests will not have far to go to relax at the end of the day.
Inside the rest of the Union, changes are in store. Pappy’s Sweet Shop and the 1869 Tap Room are closed and will not return in those locations, though parts of Pappy’s will return in a different configuration in the Union.
Some shops and restaurants are moving around. When the food court reopens, it will not feature your typical student union fast food, says Reif. Instead, 11 new concepts are coming, with Asian, Latin and European influences. Included is Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, co-owned by Drew Brees, the first appearance of that eatery in a student union, as well as a dining option operated by Scott Trzaskus, Purdue graduate and owner of East End Grill in downtown Lafayette.
The main floor of the Union will be updated and restored. But the building will retain its original character and remain true to the architecture, Reif says.
“It will have a traditional feel, but a modern traditional feel,” he says. “We’re returning as much original stuff as we can.”
The Purdue branding will continue, he says, and the historic arch motif, visible in the windows and also incorporated into the design of much original furniture — some of it still in use — will also remain.
Terraces are being built along State Street, on the south side of the Union; doors will open from inside, giving the area a trendy yet traditional feel. This will increase space for outdoor activities, making the Union much more of a destination for locals, Reif says.
Inside, the space will be modernized. Technology will be updated; there will be better restroom placement, including family and gender inclusive restrooms.
“We will maintain the best traditions of the building while including modern technology,” says Reif.
The project is slated to be complete by January of 2022, Reif says. When the building reopens, visitors will see the same Memorial Union they have come to know and love. But they will see it slightly updated and modernized. It will be more user-friendly to all visitors — more accessible, more welcoming. It will be the perfect space for students and the community alike. And above all, it will have its own identity, Reif says.