The Memorial Union is a staple and center of Oregon State University’s campus, and a marvel of architecture to be sure. Any student who has been inside this building has surely spent at least a moment admiring what it has to offer. So, what artistic secrets does this building keep behind its deeply historic walls? As many purposes as it has served, the Memorial Union has also hosted creativity at its core.
The artwork that prompted my interest in digging deeper into MU history is the pair of huge murals in the main entrance of the building. To the west of the marble staircase is a mural of the OSU research vessel Wecoma, and to the east is Montfaucon, a painting of the Italian ruins of Verdun from WWI juxtaposed over a backdrop of Corvallis. Designed and painted by Portland artist Henk Pander in 1985, these murals represent the federal land and sea grants which Oregon State had at the time (today, OSU has all four research grants: land, sea, sun, and space). The Montfaucon painting also commemorates OSU veterans and service members from WWI, which was the initial inspiration for the Memorial Union itself.
OSU’s Memorial Union was designed and planned by several WWI veterans and its construction was completed in 1927. Since then, it has been used for a huge host of things, not least of which being the display of art like Pander’s, or art in many other forms. The furnishing of the lounge at the top of the MU stairs, for instance, was chosen for its aesthetic appeal when the building was first constructed. Although the story of its charm is sometimes misconstrued, it is true that the carpet in the MU Lounge is single woven rather than created in parts and stitched together - an impressive quality, given the rug’s size. The current carpet is a replica of the original, which was replaced in the late 1980s. Similarly, the furniture in the lounge is all the same furniture as was chosen by the initial designers of the MU, save for reupholstering and repairs every few years. Little details like this show how much care has gone into the artistry of the MU throughout the building’s lifespan.
Aside from the physical art displayed on the walls, in the lounges, and now even in permanent display cases, music and dance are arts that have always been popular in the MU as well. From the modern liberal arts college event ‘Music à la Carte’ which takes place in the MU Lounge, to dances hosted in the ballroom since the very beginning of the Memorial Union, performance art has held an important place in this building’s contribution to campus culture since the beginning. The Steinway piano currently in the lounge was donated to the college by the class of 1930, the ballroom has undergone several renovations since its initial construction to accommodate more patrons and meet the needs of its users, and various parts of the building have accommodated performance events as long as it has been around.
The halls of the Memorial Union have always been host to a great variety of art and passion in all its forms, and the building will continue to be a breeding ground for the innovation of OSU students for years to come. If you ever get the chance, why not spend a few hours wandering around the historic union and seeing all that it has to offer? More information about the history of the building is also available online or in the MU itself.
This article was made possible by the generous contributions of time and direction from art and MU consultants Kent Sumner and Mike Mayers. Listed below are several other sources which they directed me to investigate, and which I encourage the curious to peruse for more information:
Grimes, M. (1985, August 21). New OSU murals vivid symbols of past, future. The Gazette Times.
Harris, I. C. (1984). More Than A Building - The MU at OSU. Corvallis, OR: Benton Printers.
Reed, E. T. (Ed.). (1930, September). The Memorial Union. Oregon State Agricultural College Bulletin, 470.
And several pamphlets on art and history offered at the MU.