Iowa State Memorial Union

Traditions, Myths & Stories

The Zodiac

Architect/designer William T. Proudfoot chose to incorporate the ancient symbols of the zodiac into the north entry floor -- classic Greek/Roman mythology for a classic-Greek/Roman-style building. In the 20's, the zodiac was not as well known as it is now. Proudfoot planned for intentional wearing away of the bronze forms by placing them above the surface of the floor - to be sculpted further by building users until, eventually, they would be the same level as the floor. We know that by 1929, students had decided that if you stepped on the zodiac, it was unlucky – that you'd flunk your next test. Rumor has it that the students created this "curse" because they liked the raised effect of the zodiac and they wanted to preserve the zodiac signs even though it went against what the architect originally intended. Now most students, hedging their bets, walk around. If you accidentally invoke the curse, you can throw a coin in the fountain to take it away!

The Fountain of the Four Seasons

The original fountain was a gift from the 1937 VEISHEA Committee. The four Maidens by Christian Petersen were added in 1941. Each woman figure represents one of the four seasons: East is Spring, planting corn; South is Summer, sheltering a young corn plant; West is Fall, holding the harvest; North is Winter, nursing a child. Over the years, all kinds of things have ended up in the fountain: soap, dye, fish (including piranhas), coins... and of course, all sorts of people. However, these things can be very problematic for our iconic Fountain of the Four Seasons. We encourage all to play a part in protecting Iowa State's artistic heritage. Please do not put objects or people in the fountain!

The Ghost & the Gold Star Hall

Late night staff in the Memorial Union and a few others report the sounds of what could be ghostly activity. We're not sure but think it might be Hortense Elizabeth Wind, the only woman among all those men's names in Gold Star Hall (...besides, with a name like "Wind"?). Perhaps she's lonely for female talk after all these years of being among 500+ guys. She was a 1915 Home Economics graduate, who tutored other students in Chemistry, and was known as a good student and a good friend. When America became involved in the war, she went to work in a Naval hospital. For years it was thought that she was a nurse, but it’s been discovered that Hortense was actually the Chief Dietician at the US Navy Hospital in Portsmouth, VA. She is honored in the "Integrity" stained glass window in Gold Star Hall, in the bottom-most panel, showing a battlefield nurse. She died during the terrible flu epidemic of 1918.



Stained Glass Windows in Gold Star Hall

Stained glass was added to Gold Star Hall in 1943. Up until that time, the windows were clear, and with neither the Pride and Main Lounges yet added on the west, nor the Campanile Room on the east, the hall was illuminated with sunlight directly from the exterior. The twelve stained glass panes were designed by former ISU student and WW 1 veteran, Harold Cummings. They depict symbols for the "homely virtues": (clockwise, starting at the NE corner) Learning, Virility, Courage, Patriotism, Justice, Faith, Determination, Love, Obedience, Loyalty, Integrity, Tolerance.

Click here to download a complete explanation of the imagery in the windows.



Stained glass image highlights:

Obedience - bottom panel - President Beardshear greeting a crowd, some of whom are arriving on "The Dinky".
Loyalty - bottom panel - Perry Holden and his demonstration train, the beginning of Iowa State’s Extension Service.
Faith - top medallion – American Revolutionary War soldiers at Valley Forge.
Tolerance - middle circle - man and woman playing tennis, noting that Iowa State was a co-educational school from the very beginning.
Virility - bottom panel - The Farm House, the first structure on the Iowa State campus, now a museum.
Patriotism - top medallion - Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War hero who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
Determination - middle circle - student trying to study, despite distractions from others.
Love - bottom panel - 1895 football game with Northwestern after which the team was known as the Cyclones.

The Grill

When the Union opened in 1928, the cafeteria was on the east side of the Commons, and The Grill was on the west side. The Grill offered hamburgers and shakes and a more informal menu. The Grill became famous for several items:Grilled rolls, Black & Whites, Green Rivers and "Drawer" burgers.



The frosty was one of a number of products developed by ISU's Dairy Science Department in the 30s and 40s. This milk-based soft ice cream was sold for the first time in the Memorial Union's Grill in the fall of 1941. A ten-ounce glass was ten cents, a cone was five cents and there was chocolate or vanilla. The mix was originally bought from Dairy Science. The Grill was removed in the early 1980s and its operations consolidated in the cafeteria. In 1986, ISU alum, Ann Jennings, donated money to renovate an area in the cafeteria for ice cream to keep the frosty tradition alive. Although the old cafeteria is gone, ice cream is still being sold in the Food Court.

Coke Date

Often a first meeting between two romantic interests was in the form of a "Coke date". They enjoyed a Coke and they sat in the "neutral territory" of the Commons and got acquainted.



One Straight Step

The west entrance at the revolving door presents a classic elliptical shape with many gracious architectural details. A unique feature of the winding stairway is that no two steps are alike, and only one is straight. Can you find it?  While you are there, look up! Can you also find cherubs in the ceiling and the Green Man whose face is made up of leaves?

Engraved Quotations in the MU       

In the west entrance on second floor, over the door to Room 2630 is a quotation from M.J. Riggs (above left). He was an 1883 graduate who was president of the Alumni Association in the 1920s, and in charge of raising one million dollars for the Memorial Union project. He eventually became the first president of the Memorial Union Board, but died before the ground was ever broken.



His quote:

"We come to college not alone to prepare to make a living, but to learn to live a life." 

Other Quotations in the west entrance:

"To set the cause above renown, to love the game beyond the prize." - Sir H.J. Newbolt

"If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone. A man, sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair." - Samuel Johnson 


Quotations in the South Entrance:

The floor medallion in the south entrance was designed by Rick Seely and Josh Palmer at HLKB Architects, Des Moines, as part of the design of the 2006-08 addition. The quote around the edge by Debra Marquart, ISU English professor, reads: 

"It is possible to create a life, doors opening to other doors, the fresh breeze of tomorrow rushing in to make the world new each day." 

The line is from the poem Palimsest, in her book From Sweetness.

 Floor Medallion in the South Entrance       

The floor medallion at the south entrance to the Memorial Union repeats the compass design that appears in other parts of the Union - in the center of the zodiac on second floor, and in three floor locations on first floor. The medallion also contains 3x6" bronze inserts with symbols for each of Iowa State's eight colleges. Download an explanation of each college's symbol. Shown above is the artist's drawing and cast bronze for College of Design (left) and College of Agricuture (right).


Iowa Whirlwind Sculpture             

"Going to college should pick a person up and set him or her down in a new place with new ideas and a deeper understanding of the world."

by Andrea Myklebust & Stanton Sears, the Minnesota artists who created the Iowa Whirlwind sculpture for the south entrance of the Memorial Union. The quote above is on the base of the sculpture.

Icons were included in Iowa Whirlwind that depict life on campus or in the MU: a dancing couple, pair of swans, clasped hands of friendship, gold star, compass, pair of hearts, MU grandfather clock, microphone, globe, rose, coffee cup, comfortable chair, book, pencil and horse skull (symbolizing the site's former use as a veterinary hospital).

The Maintenance Shop  

The Maintenance Shop (known as the M-shop) was established in 1974 after the Memorial Union's maintenance department (above left) was moved into new quarters in the southeast addition. The students who had claimed the space for performing arts programs, thought the name was "just right" and simply never changed it. The Union's resident fix-it team became known as the Mechanical Department. The picture, above right, was taken in 1976 and shows the early furnishings, including a foosball table at the back. Click here to see what's coming up at the M-Shop.


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