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UW Union Terrace Sunburst Chair

Deauville-style chair used at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Memorial Union Terrace on Lake Mendota, 1930s.
(Museum object #1982.271.9)

When the University of Wisconsin's Memorial Union first opened on the shore of Madison's Lake Mendota on October 5, 1928, it was touted by University President Glenn Frank as "...a living room which converts the University from a house of learning into a home of learning." While originally built to honor those from Wisconsin who served in the military, the Union has come to be more readily associated with its relaxing atmosphere, ideal for studying, eating, drinking, or other entertainment. Since its opening, the distinct sunburst-patterned metal chairs from the Union's lakefront terrace have become not only the quintessential furniture for the "living room," but also one of the most recognized symbols for the University itself. This chair, which dates to the early 1930s, is an example of one of the first metal chairs ever used on the Memorial Union Terrace.

At the time of its opening in 1928, the Terrace was populated with hickory chairs that quickly proved unable to tolerate Wisconsin weather. By the early 1930s, two versions of metal chairs replaced the wooden ones; one in an early version of the classic stamped-metal sunburst style, the other in this style known as the Deauville, where the sunburst shape was achieved with springy curved strips of steel. The Deauvilles, which by nature of their design were prone to catching water and consequently rusting, were phased out by the 1960s and relegated to the Union Theatre balcony. While a few other styles have been tried and failed, the stamped metal sunburst style, with a sturdy partial hoop bracing the legs at the bottom, remained the popular choice not only for its durability but its ability to stay relatively level on the uneven stones that pave the Terrace.

The University hit a snag in 1976, however, when the Troy Sun Shade Company of Troy, Ohio, the original and sole producers of the metal chairs, went out of business, and in the process, destroyed the tooling once used to make them. Like chairs purchased for the Union in the 1920s, replacements sought in the 1970s did not hold up to the weather conditions on the lake or heavy use. Not until 1981, when Wisco Industries of Oregon, Wisconsin offered to make similar stamped metal chairs (as well as tables) in the spirit of the earliest sunburst examples, was a feasible replacement option found. In accordance with the wishes of the Union, which wanted colors that evoked memories of the Terrace's most popular seasons of summer and fall, Wisco produced chairs in yellow, and as a lesser-known ode to famous tractors, additionally offered them in "John Deere" green and "Allis Chalmers" orange.

This Deauville chair was used at the Terrace until the time of its donation by the Union in 1982. Most chairs made today last for 20 years or longer, and are repainted about every five years. Unfortunately, because of their popularity, many are objects of theft, or "long term loans." Occasionally they are returned after being found by divers at the bottom of Lake Mendota or sailors spot them further down the shore on neighboring properties. Regardless, the Union takes a firm stance against chaining the chairs down, believing that complete accessibility and ability to move around makes the Terrace the comfortable gathering spot that it is.

For smitten alums, chairs are still available for purchase. While at first Wisco offered them only in Badger Red, they currently can also be purchased in Winter Terrace White. Orange, yellow and green are still solely reserved for the Terrace itself.

[Sources: Iseminger, Jeff. "A summer symbol: Union's sunburst chairs" in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, July 31, 1991; "Wisconsin Union History" online at www.union.wisc.edu/history/index.html.]

ALH


Posted on May 24, 2007

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