Exhibit celebrates Memorial Union's history

Sunday, November 30, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST
This piece is called Soldiers and Sailors and is part of the Transcendent Tower Exhibit in Memorial Union. The exhibit explores the history and construction of the union, which was put on hold when the United States entered World War I.

COLUMBIA — Speaking in “hushed tones” isn’t conducive to cell phone conversation. Tipping one's cap is a seemingly dated gesture. However, passing through the Gothic archway of Memorial Tower, a daily practice for some MU students and faculty, calls for both customs.

While many know of these outward signs of respect, meant to honor fallen MU World War I veterans, the historical significance of Memorial Union is less obvious, although certain parts are literally carved in stone.


How is Memorial Union significant to you today?  Please leave us your comments in the "Comments" box below this story. You will need to register on the Missourian's Web site, but it will only take a minute, and then you can contribute to a virtual scrapbooking about Memorial Union and Tower.

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The "Transcendent Tower" exhibit now in the lobby of Memorial Union North aims to celebrate this history as well as the architectural significance of the Memorial Union building through pictures and text.

“It’s all about bringing past, present and future together,” said Arthur Mehrhoff, academic coordinator for MU’s Museum of Art and Archeology.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Mehrhoff and Michelle Froese, public relations manager for student and auxiliary services, are encouraging students, faculty and community members to pen their memories and thoughts of what Memorial Union means to them. Mehrhoff said these written memories are a valuable form of virtual scrapbooking, tying people to the community.

Both Mehrhoff and Froese said the tower and union had a significant role in shaping the way they saw MU. Mehrhoff recalled seeing Memorial Union for the first time while attending an MU football game with his father and uncle, both World War II veterans; for him, the Memorial Union contains their memory. And Froese said that when she saw Memorial Tower for the first time as an 8-year-old, "it seemed like a castle."

The effort to preserve and present the history of Memorial Tower began a year ago when the Missouri Union commissioned Rebecca Dunham, a former research assistant for the Museum of Art and Archeology, to assemble the display. Froese said the intent was to create an exhibit that would present the information in an “easily digestible” fashion.

Dunham embarked on six months of research, sifting through photographs and documents in Campus Facilities and University Archives, Froese said. The display was installed in Memorial Union over the summer, covering wall space above armchairs and flanking construction of the lobby’s new fireplace.

The exhibit explores and illustrates the first movement toward building a student union in 1915 as a place where alumni could visit and current students could congregate. The idea was to create a sense of community. 

“In this building that also celebrates the past, and sacrifice, it celebrates students who were trying to accomplish something here," Froese said. "It recognizes they were part of an institution.”

The construction of the student union was put on hold when the United States entered World War I.

When the war ended, students and faculty began the push for a union that would not only foster a sense of community, but also stand as a monument to the people who had died in service to their country. Construction began in 1921 with Memorial Union Tower and ended with the completion of the South Wing in 1963. A copy of an invitation to the 1926 dedication ceremony of the tower and Memorial Stadium (now Faurot Field) declares the tower was “erected in honor of those who lost their lives in the Great War.”

The exhibit includes copies of building plans and a poem by Graham Hall namesake Robert Graham. In-depth descriptions of the building’s architecture further detail the commemoration of MU’s “fallen sons” in the stone of Memorial Union and Tower.

Froese stressed the relevance of the exhibit for students today.

“Students were the ones who initiated the building of the tower after World War I,” Froese said. “Students need to know that they have the power to catalyze an event."

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W. Arthur Mehrhoff December 1, 2008 | 11:26 a.m.


For most people the glistening, white classical dome of Jesse Hall symbolizes the University of Missouri. For me, it’s the grey Gothic stone arches of the Memorial Union. I first saw the Memorial Union as a little boy with my father and uncle, two World War Two veterans, while attending a Mizzou football game way back in the early Sixties (yes, we won). Now the Memorial Union contains their memory and those memories, at least for me. It’s much more than just a building.
Since I now work at the Museum of Art & Archaeology here on campus, Memorial Union is part of my everyday landscape here at Mizzou, but its easy familiarity also poses a challenge. Environmental psychologists call this habituation, a process by which we start to overlook familiar features of our environment and forget their original meanings. As my own experience suggests, places like Memorial Union possess many layers of meaning that both reflect and shape our identity. We need to become their students and learn how to read our own stories in them.
Memorial Union itself is a monument (from the Latin, to bring to mind) layered with traditional symbols we have long forgotten. It might be worthwhile to transcend our habituation and learn how others before us have viewed the Memorial Union. For veterans of World War Two like my heroes, Memorial Union may have called to mind their enormous sacrifices or those of veterans of The Great War it was originally built to honor. For Memorial architects Jamieson and Spearl, the project called to mind the rich architectural symbolism of the Middle Ages and of those great English universities Oxford and Cambridge. British philosopher G.K. Chesterton, who both reflected and shaped those great English universities, called tradition “the democracy of the dead.” Many people today regard higher education as just another consumer commodity to be purchased as cheaply as possible; the names etched into the Memorial Union tell me that’s not true. For Chesterton a university was a community rooted in a place but extending over time that requires us to extend ourselves and our limited understanding of who we are.
The Transcendent Tower photographic exhibition does just that. It serves as a tour guide to that foreign country known as The Past and offers a sure cure for habituation. Like the Old School tradition of tipping your cap when passing through the arch of the Memorial Union, our stories and memories help re-member our community and continue to build the Memorial Union.

(Report Comment)
Rachel Brekhus December 8, 2008 | 11:20 a.m.

Does anyone know the significance of the cross on the shield of the soldier statue on the left? Were the WWI soldiers seen as fighting for Christendom at that time, or was the cross a later addition, perhaps during the Cold War, as a contrast to "godless Communism?" Or was it mainly intended as a memorial cross, for the fallen MU students and faculty, since at that time, they probably would all have been Christian?

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen December 8, 2008 | 12:02 p.m.

The "cross" is not a Christian cross, but is the symbol used by the 35th Infantry Division (Missouri and Kansas National Guard).


Nothing to do with "fighting for Christendom" or the like, so there is nothing for you to protest. {rolling eyes}

(Report Comment)
Notley Hawkins December 17, 2008 | 2:36 p.m.

The Memorial Union is one my favorite work of architecture on campus. I remember as a kid they would show old movies of "Laurel and Hardy" in one of the rooms upstairs. As I photographer I love to take pictures of this grand building.

Check out my photos of the Memorial Union at:

(Report Comment)
Ruth Tofle January 12, 2009 | 8:38 p.m.

The handsome Stotler Lounge was my favorite place to study in the early 1970's. Before its recent renovation, the lounge had comfortable upholstered sofas and chairs along with a few desks with incandescent table lamps that faced the wall. I remember the nearby black and gold Bengal Lair snack bar had a large tiger skin rug stretched on the wall. Does anyone else remember this? It would be politically incorrect to have this today (!) we are trying to protect the beautiful tiger beast in its own natural habitat. Does anyone know what happened to that tiger skin rug?

(Report Comment)

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