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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fog/Mist
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The Memorial Union Terrace is re-imagined and, at last, reopened
Once more to the lake
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The new Memorial Union Terrace 'shoreline' will better handle Mendota's waves.

Our long local nightmare is over. The Terrace will soon be open.

Really open, that is. The iconic sunburst chairs were set out on April 24, but entry points have been limited, and there's been no direct lake access. The deck area between the theater and the lake has been closed for construction, as has the outdoor brat stand.

All that's scheduled to change by the end of the month; the full Terrace will return. A few weeks after that, in mid-July, boat rentals and the Hoofers Outing Club will also be back to business as usual, instead of using makeshift quarters.

"Our construction crew has taken a challenging project through a very cold winter and rainy spring," says Melanie Taylor, project manager for the Boldt Company. "They continue to pour their hearts into their work. They are incredibly dedicated and are the reason we'll all be enjoying a brat and a cold beverage from the new brat stand this summer."

The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Memorial Union is undergoing a multi-stage "reinvestment" renovation. Construction began about a year ago, and has centered on the west wing and a portion of one of Madison's most iconic outdoor areas, the Terrace.

Wendy von Below oversees it all as project manager for the Memorial Union.

"When I first got the position, a neighbor came up to me and said, 'I love the Terrace just the way it is. You're not going to change a thing, ARE you?'" she recalls, laughing. "Kind of threatening, but very truly worried."

The Memorial Union opened in 1928. The Terrace was designed by Charlotte Peabody, daughter of the campus supervising architect. She picked out the lawn furniture, too. The seating area was originally quite small. Even after the theater wing opened, in 1939, the entire area between the Union and the lake was mostly grass, trees and a few picnic tables.

"It's interesting to look back and see just what is the Terrace that we're trying to protect," says von Below. "It's actually changed quite a bit, amazingly, over the years."

Over the decades the shoreline was remade with massive limestone steps. The deck in front of the theater's north side, which many use an addition to the Terrace, was added in the 1970s. The Terrace proper was greatly expanded in the mid-1980s, with a stage and a much larger concrete seating area.

"So when you think about it, almost every 20 years something has happened out there," says von Below. "People are nervous. We're respectful of that. We understand how beautiful and special and iconic the Terrace is. We want to maintain that and, where possible, we're trying really to enhance it."

Planning began around three years ago, and has been coordinated with nearby city, alumni and Wisconsin Historical Society projects. These account for most of the construction area in Library Mall, as well as periodic street closures.

Terrace enhancements ready by the end of the month will include a new brat stand with a retractable khaki awning and a "back of the house" area for food preparation. The stand will feature a red granite counter and limestone facing.

"The idea was to make this feel like it's always belonged," says von Below. Sightlines were extensively studied to make sure the canopy won't interfere with views, and a new, higher deck area is expected to "become wildly popular, because you'll be able to look out over everything."

The entire Terrace eventually will include graded ramps from Park Street to all levels. Around 90 new trees and shrubs will be planted.

Enhancements will also include areas that most people likely think are parts of the Union, but that officially aren't. For example, as part of construction of an alumni park in what has been the parking lot adjacent to the Union, there will be a new permanent pier behind the Red Gym. The previous "stone pier" was originally part of the rowing teams' 1893 boathouse, demolished in 1968.

Work on the new pier is expected to be done by mid-June. A floating extension offering dockage is scheduled to be complete by the end of that month. The nearby annual swimming pier is expected to be installed around June 10.

Another, separate project has included refacing and repositioning the limestone steps along the Terrace's waterfront, to create a sweeping, curving shoreline that will better handle waves.

The balance of Phase I, including renovation of the Union Theater, is expected to be completed in June 2014, at a cost of around $53.2 million. After that, plans call for Phase II to immediately be launched. It will include the Rathskeller, Great Hall and other beloved spaces. Food service will continue throughout. Phase II is expected to be completed in 2017. The target date for completion of the alumni park is fall 2015.

Wendy von Below says historic integrity will be respected throughout all phases of Union renovation. "Absolutely," she says, laughing. "We all want our jobs when we're finished."

No tax dollars are being used for the reinvestment project. The Wisconsin Union organization has always been funded by student segregated fees, operating revenue and donations.

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