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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Memorial Union Terrace offseason: Where are the chairs?

As the nip leaves the air and warmer temperatures arrive, the return of terrace season is on the minds of University of Wisconsin-Madison students.

With over 2,000 Sunburst chairs, the Memorial Union Terrace is a gathering spot for Wisconsin residents from near and far. The unique chairs serve as a symbol of Wisconsin’s seasonality, from their long-awaited appearance in the spring to their dreaded storage at a “top secret” location in the fall.

Paul Broadhead, assistant director for facilities management, operates and maintains the Memorial Union Terrace and supports the operation of the Wisconsin Union organization. This includes organizing volunteers to set up the furniture in April, working on Terrace refurbishment projects and more. 

Along with these tasks, Broadhead said he is a key player in a decision-making process that draws statewide attention: when the Terrace chairs head into hibernation and when they return.

Each year, the chairs are removed due to weather, lake temperature, and moving and storage resources — but most importantly, it all depends on Homecoming. In the fall, the Terrace chairs are certain to stay out for Badger alumni proud to return home, offering a spot of familiarity to reminisce over a pitcher of Union-sponsored beer. Broadhead said if Homecoming ever fell at the end of November, the chairs would enjoy an extended stay at Memorial Union.

Homecoming is at the tail end of a year full of celebratory events on the Memorial Union Terrace, including Terrace opening day, commencement, a summer of movies and music and miscellaneous wedding and birthday celebrations. 

The Terrace holds a special place in the hearts of Wisconsinites, according to Shauna Breneman, the Wisconsin Union communications manager.

One of the most unique times throughout the year at the Terrace is early fall before the weather turns too cold to explore Madison without a coat. When students are back in the routine of school but not ready to say goodbye to warm weather quite yet, they default to using the Terrace as a library. But instead of books, the smell of brats and the sound of lively chatter surrounds them. 

“[In the fall] you’re more likely to find a table that’s available, and it’s absolutely stunning. And, really, is it ever a bad day to come to a lakeside destination like the Memorial Union Terrace?” Breneman said.

“It’s always a good idea, but fall is especially beautiful,” she added.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison broke ground to construct the Memorial Union Terrace in 1928, quickly dubbing it an “undergraduate playground.” A place where students, parents and alumni could gather, participating in events such as “Venetian night, Cap night, University sings, fetes and alumni gatherings.” 

In vibrant oranges, yellows and greens, the Terrace chairs have their own long-standing history. Each of these colors represent a varying aspect of Wisconsin agriculture: Allis Chalmers orange, John Deere green and yellow to pay tribute to Wisconsin’s farming tradition, according to UW-Madison. The three generations of Terrace chair iterations began with a rustic hickory design and eventually became the “Deauville,” a metal chair design similar to what is present on the Terrace today. However, the “Deauville” was replaced in the 1960s with the famous Sunburst chairs due to a design flaw causing water to catch and rust the seats.

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The Memorial Union Terrace serves as a multi-generational hub for families and friends to gather in a familiar place that remains relatively unchanged.

“When folks come back that were from prior generations, the thing that I hear is, ‘Well, it changed a little bit, but it feels pretty much the same,’” Broadhead said. “We want the Terrace to feel comfortable for everyone, and that’s really been our goal from day one.”

Terrace season stretches from a long-awaited day in mid-April, showing the first promises of warmer weather to the ambiguous fall day the chairs eventually leave for the winter. Breneman said she starts receiving questions about the return of the chairs the day they leave the Terrace.

“We are so grateful for the excitement that the Terrace chairs bring. We’re so grateful that people miss them,” Breneman said. “If not for the folks who have come here for the past 110 years, we would not be able to do what we do.”

Every year, Wisconsinites count down the days until warm weather and the chairs grace Memorial Union again. With 50-degree days that will soon become 70-degree days, the Madison community is gearing up to say hello to the famous Terrace emblems once again.

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