Shaping a Campus Hub

The long quest to build the Bryan Center

The Bryan University Center is full of campus activity, and it will be even more so once the West Campus Union closes for renovation this summer. With performance spaces, meeting rooms, student activities, the University Stores, and dining, it is an essential part of student life today. It might be surprising that the long saga of its construction makes it one of the campus’ most-debated and most-anticipated buildings.

The story starts in 1949, when William J. Griffith ’50, then a student (later vice president for student affairs), looked at the site of today’s Allen Building with some friends. As he told The Chronicle in 1982, “We paced off the site where Allen Building sits today and decided it would make a great location for a Union Center.” They even talked to President Edens about their idea, but the need for an administrative building prevailed, and the Allen Building went up in 1954. In 1959, a Long Range Planning Committee called a union a top priority and estimated the cost at $4 million. It wasn’t until 1970, when Terry Sanford became president, that momentum began to build.

In the fall of 1970, Sanford commissioned a committee, including students, to determine the philosophy and purpose of a union. In 1971, another committee made further recommendations. It proposed that the union should contain lounges, an arts-and-crafts center, a forum, a gallery, a multipurpose room to be subdivided, a theater, dining options, services such as a bookstore and post office, guest rooms, and “special interest shops for the sale of ice cream and leathers, candles, and other craft items.” At this date, the expected cost was $8 million.

On again, off again: Years before construction began on the Bryan Center, the university's attempts to build a student center were continually delayed by rising cost estimates.

The planning committee—again, with students—visited numerous student unions around the country to continue to refine ideas, and an architect was selected. A pamphlet from 1972 stated that initial drawings would begin that year, with groundbreaking expected in the fall of 1973. However, the need to raise more funds delayed groundbreaking for more than three years. Finally, on December 10, 1976, a number of guests joined President Sanford in the ceremonial groundbreaking on the site. Barbara Hall ’76 (and later M.D. ’80), immediate past chair of the building committee and past president of the union, commented, “Some students became so dedicated to the project that they seemed to be majoring in university center planning.” Indeed, the classes of 1975, 1976, and 1977 together pledged more than $175,000 in gifts toward the building, and the Student Project for University Development (SPUD) was active in fundraising.

Although half of the expected $8 million had been raised by 1977, inflation had driven the cost to $11.5 million. The trustees authorized the construction to start, but university architect James Ward told The Chronicle in February 1978 he was “reluctant to close down Union Drive” until he was “sure that a building is going to come out of the ground.”

In May 1978, Joseph and Kathleen Bryan pledged $3 million toward the project. The Greensboro couple, neither of whom were alumni, remarked, “We are doing this because we feel it is the duty of private citizens, whenever they are able to do so, to contribute to the private sector of higher education.” With this generous gift, the building had its name, but there was still a shortfall; the cost was now $12.5 million.

On September 5, 1978, President Sanford wrote an extraordinary letter to 55,000 alumni. “This is the first time I have ever written a letter like this, as you know, but this is a special occasion, a special opportunity, a special need…. We are awarding the construction contract on August 12, and we will start construction immediately; if we are not successful in raising these additional pledges, we could find it necessary to suspend construction.” His plea yielded $1.3 million.

After nine years of planning, pledging, and pleading, students had become disenchanted with the project. An editorial in the February 23, 1979, Chronicle noted, “When the ‘Site of the New University Center’ remains only a site for over two years, many of us begin to wonder if we’re not meant to eat, receive mail, and attend experimental theater productions among the trees out there.”

To the relief of all on campus, construction began in May of 1979, and the Bryan Center was officially opened in February 1981—some thirty years after the idea had been proposed. The Durham Morning Herald wrote that “you have to get past the skin” to take in the building in all of its impressiveness. Offering a flattering assessment not always echoed by later users of the building, it said the Bryan Center “sort of cascades down a natural hill, takes root among the pines and hardwoods, and looks far less pretentious than it is. Inside, however, its 144,000 square feet are composed in flamboyance…. [T]he center is like a great mall, with activities scattered about.”

The opening weekend took advantage of the Bryan Center’s scattered-about spaces, with musical and theatrical performances, a champagne toast, film screenings, and even a gathering to watch the Duke-UNC basketball game on television.


Gillispie is the university archivist.

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