Iowa State Memorial Union

MU Updates CyBowl & Billiards and the MU Art Gallery

The MU took advantage of the building closing during COVID-19 to make creative renovations

The Memorial Union (MU) is unique on campus in that half the staff is charged with the upkeep and delicate care of a 93-year-old building, and the other half is responsible for planning events, advising students, and managing student organizations. When together they decided that for the safety of the Iowa State community they’d have to close our doors on March 17, 2020, the whole staff shared a moment of heartbreak. After all, the MU hadn’t closed for a longer than a couple of days over the holidays since they opened in 1928. But these are industrious folks, and after taking a beat, they got back to work. 

Memorial Union Director Dr. Steve Winfrey explained what those first few weeks in March were like. “As the MU staff became accustomed to the new COVID guidelines, we took action. The custodial staff added new duties to their work cycles and began deep-cleaning the building. Our mechanical staff also remained in the building to continue building maintenance, repairs, and updates. Our student activities staff reimagined their programs virtually, and determined how best to help student organizations thrive.”

While no one could have foreseen that the building would close in March, there were a few advantages to the timing. Temporary office tenants on floors 4-6 had recently moved out in anticipation of upcoming renovations to that space. Two other projects were already in the planning stages. One was to completely abate the Browsing Library and convert it to an MU Art Gallery. The other was to continue improving the CyBowl & Billiards space after replacing the bowling lanes that winter. “It was a natural decision to start the projects as the pandemic slowed other work tasks down, and the empty building also allowed for the projects messiness to go unnoticed and project noise to go unheard,” said Dr. Winfrey.  “With the upcoming renovation on the 4-6 floors of the MU, the timing was perfect to reuse materials such as trim and doors that would have been thrown away in the construction process. Instead, the MU saved a lot of money reusing, recycling, and reducing waste.”

The former Browsing Library had been slated for an update: the space needed to be completely abated for asbestos and refurnished. Conversations about the best use of the space afterwards eventually resulted in converting the space to a dedicated MU Art Gallery rather than having art exhibits in meeting rooms on the third floor. The building shutdown during this process was ideal because the abatement was able to be vented properly. Once it was time to finish the space, MU Fine Arts Coordinator Letitia Kenemer (and her family) worked hard alongside the MU mechanical team to make the space ideal for art exhibits. With new flooring, a fresh coat of paint, and new lighting, the space is now bright, airy, and cheerful. “The space almost looks brand new and provides such a peaceful and classic look to showcase the art Letitia curates,” explains Dr. Winfrey. Eagle-eyed visitors might also spy the wooden trim relocated to the MU Art Gallery from the former hotel rooms on floors 4-6.

In the basement of the MU, Cybowl & Billiards was undergoing a similar treatment. The bowling lanes had just been replaced, but the rest of the space was long overdue for some sprucing up as well. Luckily, the MU mechanical staff are resourceful and creative, and CyBowl is now a new home for 800 feet of base trim from the old hotel rooms, 120 square foot of metal siding from a roof project that is now the base of the counter, seven pendant lights and three copper sconces from other parts of the building, and an old window well that had been in storage since 1997. It even features wrought-iron railings from one of our mechanical staff member’s old front porch. But Dr. Winfrey’s favorite re-purposing was the old bowling lanes. “The tables made out of the old bowling lanes in CyBowl were something I didn’t imagine turning out that nicely.  The counter that was fabricated out of old doors for the base with the old bowling lanes for the counter top is also incredible.  I am completely blown away with the talent our mechanical staff possess,” he says. 

Dr. Winfrey spent a lot of time right alongside his staff members to get the job done. “I loved all the work as it allowed me to get out from behind the desk and get my hands dirty – really dirty! Painting CyBowl was a lot of fun, as several other staff members came down to help. We learned new painting techniques – and how to get paint out of hair and clothing. I really enjoyed installing the new vinyl flooring with mechanic Justin Walker and MU Associate Director Brad Hill.  It was something that took a lot of time, attention, and fabricating to get it just right. Justin only scolded us once when he noticed an open seam in the flooring. Luckily, we only had to remove a small section of flooring to fix our mistake. I learned that day that Justin takes a lot of pride in his work to notice the small detail I had overlooked. I especially loved the project work because it allowed me to work side by side with staff members for an extended period of time, and I got to know more about them personally. I learned a good deal about families, hobbies, and old stories of the MU. I look forward to helping out with other projects in the future – if they will let me!”

Now that the MU is open once more, you can come see these renovated spaces for yourself! A new art exhibit called Art In Isolation will open in the MU Art Gallery on February 1, and CyBowl & Billiards is open daily – check out their birthday party packages!

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