Memorial Union renovation progresses; Phase 1 on track for mid-September completion

Deciding to call the underground portion of a building the "lower level" instead of the "basement" sounds at first like the sort of PR thing that can make a journalist snort in disgust.

But the dank, musty image called to mind by the word "basement" really does not apply in the slightest to the lower level of Fort Hays State University's Memorial Union, even in its unfinished state with the raw concrete, naked aluminum framing, and the temporary banister and rails made from 2 x 4 lumber.

There is, for instance, the sweeping grand staircase curving down from what used to be the main dining area on the south side of the first floor, flanked by windows that will bathe a new dining area at the foot of the stairs with daylight. Even by mid-August -- when the concrete was still raw, the aluminum framing was naked and the banister and rails were temporary affairs of 1-inch lumber -- it opened up almost half the lower level to daylight and air.

The other end of the lower level will have a view up to the first floor through a dramatic glass and rail opening. The first floor's south stairwell, behind the new elevator, will itself be open to the sky through a large skylight.

It is all part of the first of three phases of an almost 20-month, $8.5 million renovation of the Memorial Union, originally built in 1958 near the site of Cody Commons, the university's former dining facility.

"We're approximately halfway through the project," said union Director Bill Smriga (pronounced SMREEguh). "The architects from Howard and Helmer and the construction firm of Paul-Wertenberger have done a nice job phasing the project so the union can remain open and serve the campus during the renovation process."

The name "Cody Commons" is returning to the renovated union as a historical connection to the university's first dining facility. The new Cody Commons is at the foot of the grand staircase and will feature seating for dining and lounging, a "cyber cafe" area, a stage for performances, four LCD flat screen TVs, an LCD projector to show movies and TV programs, and numerous electrical outlets and data ports making the area laptop-network friendly. Mondo's Subs will be the food outlet in Cody Commons.

"Phase 1 should be finished by mid-September," Smriga said. This means that Cody Commons and the Center for Student Involvement on the lower level will be completed for use by the Student Government Association, University Activities Board, Greek Life organizations, support staff offices and other student groups. The Center for Student Involvement is a new area created to provide a working and learning environment for students and student organizations. The CSI will provide opportunities for students to participate in campus government, plan co-curricular activities and develop their leadership abilities. The new space will also provide offices for professional staff.

Because of the renovation, the only food service operation open during the fall semester will be Mondo's Subs. Tiger Cove, the student gathering spot in the southeast corner of the first floor, will open in mid-semester.

Throughout the renovation, the University Bookstore, Commerce Bank and Memorial Union offices will remain open. The Black and Gold Room and the Fort Hays Ballroom, the two large multi-purpose rooms, will continue to host events throughout the year and be served by Chartwell's, the University's food service provider, said Smriga.

Some of the smaller meeting rooms will be unavailable during the renovation's second and third phases. The Cavalry Room will serve as the temporary Student Service Center through the fall semester, and the Memorial Union offices and Tiger Card Center will temporarily move to the new Student Health Center area on the lower level during the spring semester.

During Phase 2 renovation, the union's west entrance will access only the University Bookstore, and the southeast entrance will be closed until mid-semester. Access into the union will change as construction progresses.

"Watch for the informational signs," said Smriga.

Phase 2, scheduled for completion about mid-January, will include final work on Union Station, which is the food service and dining area along the south side of the first floor. Commerce Bank will move into its new location on the first floor in the area formerly occupied by the Student Government Association. This phase will also see final work to the cyber cafe in Cody Commons.

With completion of the third phase in the summer of 2007, the union will have dramatic new entrances east and west, a new Tiger Card and union offices, and two new meeting rooms (the Smoky Hill Room in the old Commerce Bank location and the Meadowlark Room in the northeast corner of Sunset Lounge). The union will also house the campus Mail Center, which will move from its current location in Picken Hall.

The building's heating and air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems are also being modernized. Smriga said the mechanical systems of the building are more than 40 years old and in need of replacement. Beyond that, the project will make the Memorial Union more student-friendly and up-to-date.

"The newly-renovated union will be spectacular, and I can't wait for the campus to have the opportunity to enjoy it," said Smriga.

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