A Permanent Home on Lake Mendota

Alumni House May 2011For more than 40 years, the Alumni House has been nestled in the northeast corner of the UW-Madison campus along the shore of Lake Mendota, adjacent to the iconic Red Gym and within view of our beloved Terrace. But the dream of moving the Wisconsin Alumni Association headquarters from the fourth floor of the Memorial Union took nearly twenty years to become reality. In fact, the long and arduous process at times looked dead in the water until a fortuitous boat ride inspired two campus leaders to bring it back to life.

Alumni from the class of 1903 jump-started the project in 1953 with a donation of $7,500. WAA officials considered several potential locations for the new center, including the Old Executive Mansion on Gilman Street (considered too far removed from campus), and Washburn Observatory (considered too small to house the association and too old to be remodeled).

According to the June 1967 issue of Wisconsin Alumnus magazine, things seemed to be at a standstill until the summer of 1959, when UW President Conrad Elvehjem ’23, MS’24, PhD’27 took a boat ride with alumnus and former WAA president Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., ’21 on Lake Mendota. “As they passed the front of the University Boat House on the lower campus, Tom remarked ‘That’s where the Alumni House should be built.'”

Brittingham called this a “natural site” for the headquarters, and offered to match $1 for every $2 contributed in a drive to raise $100,000 for construction. Over 85 alumni and friends donated $1,000 or more to the campaign, thus including themselves in the “Thousand Dollar Club.”

In the meantime, the UW Foundation negotiated with the Sigma Chi fraternity to purchase their home on the land between the Wisconsin Center, which was built in 1958, and Lake Mendota, finally acquiring the property in December 1961 for $178,000.

In 1963, the Board of Regents gave WAA permission to build on that lot and approved preliminary plans the following year. The project faced serious roadblocks in 1965, when construction bids came in high. But WAA and UW Foundation directors insisted the building would be finished, and a change in plans, along with an additional $200,000 in donations, pushed construction forward.

Groundbreaking for the new building took place during Homecoming celebrations in October 1965, in the midst of tumultuous autumn weather described at the time as “a seeming testament to the rough road the Alumni House plans had traveled in their development.” But work started soon after, and construction was completed in time for the center’s official dedication ceremony on May 13, 1967. The new building included administrative offices, the Bureau of Graduate Records, and the glass-enclosed meeting space with promenade deck now known as Alumni Lounge.

In 1994, crews broke ground on the Martin and Florence Below Alumni Center addition, which today serves as the main entrance and offices for WAA at the north end of Lake Street. And in 1997, a gift of $2 million from Thomas and Judith Pyle launched a renovation project to expand and remodel the Wisconsin Center for Adult Education, which is now known as the Pyle Center.