The history of the Memorial Union’s Terrace chairs begins with the history of the Union itself. During construction of the Union, the Terrace went through a variety of changing concepts. When Arthur Peabody, the UW’s architect, designed the Union, he planned space for a “long terrace stretching down from the Union to the Lake Mendota shore.” Initially this was to be a smaller area paved with colored tiles and then a series of grassy tiers: a kind of large lawn.
But Peabody left the final design to his daughter, Charlotte ’21. Her plan incorporated a broad field of flagstones, which was created during the summer of 1928, while Memorial Union prepared to open. When that happened on October 5, it appears Terrace construction was still in progress. In spring 1929, workers were still removing rocks and debris before the first Terrace event — a boat party called Venetian Night, which took place that May 25. Tables and chairs didn’t arrive until June.
Those first seats were rustic-looking hickory chairs. In 1931, the Union ordered samples of a variety of metal chairs, including the familiar sunburst design and a similar “Deauville” design. For three decades, both were called “Terrace chairs,” but by the 1960s, the Deauville showed a design flaw: its shape trapped water, causing the chairs to rust. The Union stopped ordering them, and by 1970, almost all the Deauvilles were gone.
Why are the Terrace chairs green, orange, and yellow? This has to do with Wisconsin industry and agriculture. The green is the hue of John Deere tractors; the orange matches the color for Allis Chalmers, a tractor-maker formerly based in West Allis, Wisconsin. And yellow — that’s for sunshine, which is the Terrace’s most valued commodity besides its lake view.
The Union Terrace is scheduled to reopen this month after a nearly yearlong rehabilitation. If you’re back in Madison, drop in, have a seat, and sip a beverage of your choice.