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Coffman Memorial Union

Celebrating 75 Years of Service

In 1936, University of Minnesota President Lotus Delta Coffman stated: “Someday, the University of Minnesota will have a student union as the center of its social life.” Construction for the student union Coffman had imagined began in 1939, a year after his death.

Coffman Memorial Union opened its doors in time for classes in fall 1940. The building featured a ballroom that a accommodated up to 1,200 dancers, a two-story main lounge, a bowling alley with sixteen lanes, billiards, a barber and beauty shop, among many other amenities. Coffman Memorial Union underwent its first major renovation during the 1970s, which dramatically changed the building’s aesthetic.

A second major renovation was completed between 1999 and 2003, which modernized the building but also honored the original design. In 2013, the second floor of Coffman Memorial Union was renovated to meet the needs of the growing student organizations on campus.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 1940s

The 1940s

Coffman Memorial Union opened in time for classes in September, 1940 and was dedicated on October 25th as part of the Homecoming celebration.

An article in Time magazine claimed that the new union: "Rivaled the Hanging Gardens of Babylon." Exaggerations aside, Coffman did offer many amenities, but the Minnesota Alumni Weekly was quick to point out that there were unions across the United States that cost more, despite having smaller student bodies. According to the Alumni Weekly, the most important part of the union was not that it included many new facilities, but that having one large building was, “a symbol of University unification." Although Coffman did include separate men’s and women’s lounges, most of the spaces were open equally to men and women, which served to create a more unified community.

Coffman was not meant to be just a social space, but a place that would help shape students’ development and prepare them to be contributing members of society.

  • Formal Dance in the Main Ballroom, Coffman Memorial Union, 1940s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Women standing in front of Coffman Memorial Union, 1940s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Billiards Lesson, Game Room, Coffman Memorial Union, 1943. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Main Lounge, Coffman Memorial Union, 1940s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Board of Governors Meeting, Coffman Memorial Union, circa 1945. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Barbershop in Coffman Memorial Union, circa 1940s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 1950s

The 1950s

By the 1950s, Coffman Memorial Union was no longer a brand new building. In 1953, the director Gordon Starr wrote up a plan addressing the redesign of certain parts of the building and replacement of furniture that had been used heavily for thirteen years. Although expectations about how students were to use the building certainly differed from today, thousands of students naturally caused quite a bit of wear and tear. The uses of space in Coffman were more regulated than they are today. It was permissible to play cards only in the game room, students were allowed to eat food brought from home only in designated areas and, at least officially, studying was permitted only in areas dedicated to studying. To what degree it was possible to regulate the use of spaces is a separate issue.

  • Main Lounge, Coffman Memorial Union, circa 1959-1960. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Members of Campus Canteen at the Terrace Grill, Coffman Memorial Union, 1950. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Students in the Terrace Reading Room, circa 1955. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Reading the newspaper, Coffman Memorial Union, January 27, 1958. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 1960s

The 1960s

Coffman Memorial Union was built to accommodate 14,000 students, but by 1960 there were almost 30,000 and enrollments continued to rise. As of the mid 1960s, as many as 20,000 students traipsed through Coffman during a single day. In a 1965 letter, director Gordon Starr emphasized that Coffman was the most used building on campus and that that there simply was not enough space available, writing in parenthesis that: “This is typified by one student who found it necessary to use a telephone booth to eat his lunch.” During the 1960s, attitudes toward how the spaces were used began to change, both due to a lack of available space and due to the belief that individuals from different backgrounds, disciplines and generations should be comfortable associating with one another.

  • Television Viewing Room, Coffman Memorial Union, circa 1960. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • In front of Coffman Memorial Union, circa 1960. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • International students crossing the footbridge over Washington Avenue, 1961. Photograph Courtesy of University Archives, University of Minnesota.

  • The John F. Kennedy Library Exhibit, Great Hall, Coffman Memorial Union, July, 1964. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

1965 - 1975

1965 - 1975

The first protest of the Vietnam War at the University of Minnesota took place on February 2, 1965 in front of Coffman Memorial Union, and students staged protests at Coffman throughout the war. Students began occupying the building 24 hours a day starting on May 4, 1970, the day the National Guard killed student protesters at Kent State Demonstrations continued to occur. They occupied Coffman continually over the next month. The largest demonstrations at the university occurred two years later in May, 1972. On May 8, 1972 President Nixon announced that the U.S. was going to blockade and lay mines in North Vietnam’s harbors. May 10th, the most significant protests in the University of Minnesota’s history took place across campus. Protesters barricaded Washington Avenue, and 6,000 people gathered in front of Coffman to listen to various speakers, including the former U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy. When the renovation was completed in 1976, the redesign made it more difficult for large groups of students to assemble in the building.

  • Washington Avenue Barricade, May 9, 1972. Photograph Courtesy of University Archives, University of Minnesota.

  • Vietnam War protest at the University of Minnesota, circa 1965-1972. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Vietnam War protest in Coffman Memorial Union, circa 1965-1972. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 1970s

The 1970s

Coffman Memorial Union’s first major renovation was completed between 1974 and 1976. The redesign substantially changed the building’s appearance and eliminated many of the Art Deco aspects of the original design. Some members of the community felt that there was a lack of consideration to the integrity of the original union. After the renovation, Coffman was unrecognizable from the building you see today. The main color scheme was changed to bright magenta, blue, yellow, orange, purple, and green. The front was glassed in to the pillars and one could enter the building only from the side. At the back of the building, one third of the terrace was covered in an angled glass, extending the Main Lounge, which was renamed the Ski-U-Mah Lounge. The redesign added about 25,000 square feet of space, but the added glass caused the building to heat up like a greenhouse in summer and leak heat in the winter.

  • Coffman Memorial Union Renovation, circa 1974-1976. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • North Star Lounge, circa late 1970s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Ski-U-Mah Lounge, circa late 1970s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 1980s

The 1980s

When individuals who had attended the University of Minnesota in the 1980s were asked what they most remembered about Coffman Memorial Union, television was a common theme. As in previous decades (Coffman’s first television was purchased in 1948), during the 1980s Coffman’s television brought students together, as people did not carry their own personal screens with them everywhere they went. Phil Archer, a former University of Minnesota student and current staff member, recalled that: “People were glued to the TV in the old lounge when the Challenger space shuttle blew up in '86.”  Gathering in public spaces provides a sense of solidarity during difficult times. Students also watched their favorite shows at Coffman. Teresa Schweitzer, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1987, remembered that there was always a big group of students watching Days of Our Lives.

  • Students in the lounge near the Information Desk, circa 1980s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Students in the Ski-U-Mah Lounge, circa 1980s. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 1990s

The 1990s

Today, Coffman Memorial Union provides individual spaces on the second floor to nine cultural centers along with multi-uses space that are available to all student groups. Both the International Relations Bureau (today known as the Minnesota International Student Association) and the YWCA (Today Feminist Student Activist Collective) were granted space in Coffman in 1940. However, they were not categorized as cultural centers until the 1990s. The four groups that originally were understood as cultural centers were not granted space in Coffman until the 1990s. According to an article published in the Minnesota Daily on April 26, 1989: “After 12 years of occupying shabby rooms, run-down buildings and confined space, three university cultural centers may have finally found their niche.” The article goes onto say that the African, Asian-American and La Raza student cultural centers were to be allocated space in Coffman, which came to fruition in in the early 1990s, with the American Indian Cultural Center remaining in Jones Hall. Soon after, The Disabled Student Cultural Center and the group that later became known as the Queer Students Cultural Center also were provided with private space in Coffman. Al-Madinah was founded in 1999, the year that Coffman’s second major renovation began, and both Al-Madinah and the American Indian Cultural Centers requested— and were granted— space once renovation was completed in early 2003.

  • Students watching CNN's coverage of the Persian Gulf War, January 17, 1991. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • Students from the Africana Student Cultural Center. Photograph Published October 19, 1989 in the Minnesota Daily.

  • Asian American Student Cultural Center painting panels at Paint the Bridge, September, 1994. Photograph Courtesy of the Berton M. Atkinson Archive.

  • National Coming Out Week, Photograph Published October 8, 1997 in the Minnesota Daily.

  • Dance in Coffman Memorial Union sponsored by the Queer Student Cultural Center (QSCC). Photograph Published October 19, 1998 in the Minnesota Daily.

  • Event sponsored by the Disabled Student Cultural Center (DSCC), the Center for Outdoor Aventure and the Wilderness Inquiry. Photograph Published February 1, 1999 in the Minnesota Daily.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 2000s

The 2000s

Coffman Memorial Union was closed from Monday November 15, 1999 until Tuesday, January 21, 2003 for a major renovation that removed most of the traces of the previous renovation . The redesign cost $71.5 million and honored the building’s intended aesthetic, but also was modernized to include important features such as air conditioning. Inside of Coffman, many of the original features, such as terrazzo floors and original light fixtures, reconnect the building with its roots. For many years, Coffman was the center of student life on campus and myriad students made use of the building every day, but over the years, traffic fell dramatically. The redesign brought students back through the doors, helping to make Lotus Delta Coffman’s vision a reality once again. Weekly late night programming also attracted students to visit Coffman on the weekends and provided students living in the residence halls with easily accessible activities.

  • Gophers After Dark in back of Coffman Memorial Union, 2007. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Whole Music Club, 2008. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.

The 2010s

The 2010s

In summer 2013, the second floor was renovated. The second floor houses the nine cultural centers along with student government, and Commuter Connection. The Second Floor Advisory Committee was established in 2011-2012 in order to guide the redesign and space allocation process and included representatives from the cultural centers, student government and groups without office space. The committee decided that it would be best to have the cultural centers on the sides and an open space in the middle so that student groups— including other cultural centers—   without space on the second floor would be able to utilize the redesigned space. The multi-use space includes both open areas and smaller conference rooms that student groups can reserve for meetings. Individual students are also welcome to use unreserved spaces and the common area. The construction took place during summer 2013 and the second floor reopened in time for fall semester. While some students protested the redesign, cultural center representatives on the Second Floor Advisory Committee played a major role in directing the re-design process. Today the spaces are heavily utilized by students. 

  • Front of Coffman Memorial Union, 2010. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Back of Coffman Memorial Union, 2010. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Second floor ribbon cutting ceremony March 21, 2014. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Crowd, including protestors at ribbon cutting ceremony, March 21, 2014. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Students on the second floor, 2014. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Students in a common area on the second floor, 2014. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

  • Student worker on the second floor, 2013. Photograph Courtesy of Student Unions & Activities.

Photographs Courtesy of Coffman Memorial Union's Berton Atkinson Archive Collection and University Archives.