U-M Bentley creates online exhibition exploring gender and architecture alongside Michigan Union re-opening
Originally, the Michigan Union was built as a men’s club—women weren’t allowed through the front door until 1956. The Michigan League was built 10 years later as a sister club for women.
Inspired by the re-opening of Michigan Union after being closed for renovations since 2018, the Bentley Historical Library has created an online exhibition about the architects who designed the building—as well as the League—and how gender played strongly into the architecture for both buildings. The online exhibition, Constructing Gender: The Origins of Michigan’s Union and League, explores how the Union and League not only reflected the era’s ideas about gender roles but also about how they perpetuated them.
As familiar as these buildings may seem on today’s campus, their origins are less so. Originally, U-M President Marion Burton envisioned separate zones of campus for men and women in the early twentieth century, where men’s interests would center in the southern and western regions of campus, and women’s interests would be north.
The architects for the building, Irving Kane Pond and Allen Bartlit Pond, both Ann Arbor natives and Michigan alums whose Chicago-based firm designed a number of university unions, drafted similar buildings in appearance but created explicit distinctions for male and female occupancies. Among the differences: the League was to include a chapel for meditation and a theater while the Union was planned for more active pursuits such as billiards, bowling, and swimming.
The architects created spaces for men that minimally accommodated women, while women’s spaces had to have maximum accommodations for men. They stated: “Men will gather in clubs and enjoy themselves without the presence of women, while women, especially college girls, find their enjoyment greatly enhanced by the presence of men or boys.”
While the Michigan Union and the Michigan League shared a common goal—to provide students with opportunities for character development and socializing—they pursued it in different ways. The most obvious difference between the use of the two buildings was access. Students themselves established the restrictive practice of not allowing unescorted women through the front doors of the Union—a guard was even positioned there. Women were required to enter the Union through a side door until 1956.
For the League, the architects pictured a space that would enable self-direction for women in an era of organization and empowerment. Still, the desire to create social and leadership opportunities for female students was rooted in the ideals of the 1920s. A bulletin created to support fundraising for the League’s construction wrote with marriage in mind, stating “a woman who can not make contacts with her community is not the ideal wife or mother of today.”
Men did visit the League and women the Union, but often for specific purposes or events. For example, both men and women were able to make use of the swimming pool at the Union, though at separate times. Additionally, some spaces in the Union were still restricted from women, including the billiards room, which did not admit women until 1968. Formal dances presided as the most memorable co-educational activities between men and women in both the Union and the League during the buildings’ establishment.
To read more about how the establishment of the Michigan Union and League constructed beautiful architecture, but also advanced of gender divisions, visit the Bentley Library’s online exhibition: Constructing Gender: The Origins of Michigan’s Union and League.