Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean? Longer than there’ve been stars up in the heavens? Longer than my patience for listening to Dan Fogelberg? Library Mall has been under construction for so, so long.
In terms of recent history, the mall has included some shovel, backhoe, hardhat, temporary building, chain-link fence, or other implement of construction since August 2008. That year, the Library Mall saw extensive utility construction, which lasted until 2012.
But things didn’t end then. Library Mall is open ground, so even when it hasn’t been undergoing changes itself, it’s served as a staging area for construction in adjacent properties: Alumni Park (begun in 2015 and ending late this year) and Memorial Union (2012 to 2017). Further, the adjoining State Street Mall (the stretch of State on which food carts sell their wares, running from Lake to Park Streets and forming the southern border of Library Mall) was torn up and rebuilt in 2014, and now St. Paul’s Catholic Center has been torn down and will be rebuilt by summer 2017.
Thus the last undergrads who can remember an unencumbered Library Mall were the freshmen who arrived in 2007, and they graduated five years ago.
But upheaval isn’t unusual for Library Mall. The periods of peace are the aberrations in its history.
What we today call Library Mall became part of campus in 1889, and initially it was an athletic field. This is sensible because it was near the Armory, which served as the UW’s gymnasium (thus the nickname Red Gym). Over the next four decades, some eight buildings sprang up around it.
Following World War II, when the GI Bill brought a rush of new students to campus, Library Mall was used for overflow housing, classrooms, and parking. Several temporary Quonset huts were erected, but temporary meant for nearly a decade, until 1954. The mall didn’t get its current shape until 1958, after the construction of Memorial Library and the removal of the huts.
In the 1960s, the City of Madison decided to close State Street to auto traffic. This gave Library Mall its southern border, but progress was slow, and it took until 1976 to re-create the street as a pedestrian-only zone.
When the mall emerges from this latest flurry of work, it will look a little different. The speaker’s rostrum has been removed from its south end, and the Class of 1923 clock is gone. Then enjoy it while you can — no doubt some new architect will make plans for it soon.