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Big Building on Campus

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By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2011 8:00 AM


It's seen concerts, important political speeches, great movies, protest rallies and dance marathons. But UCLA's Ackerman Student Union is more than just a central meeting place for Bruins. As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we look back at how Ackerman was both a harbinger of big changes to come on campus and a concrete chronicle of changing student and societal tastes and attitudes.

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Exciting, top-ranked athletics. Superior academics. Knock-'em-dead concerts. A gorgeous campus. Every world-class university needs those things, but one thing perhaps more than any other: a robust student union.

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Fifty years ago on April 3, the student union now known as Ackerman Union opened and changed the UCLA experience forever. Who among the tens of thousands of students who have bought a sandwich or a taco, met their sweethearts over coffee, studied in one of its lounges or bought books in the Associated Students UCLA (AS UCLA ) store doesn't have memories of Ackerman?

Are you one of those who rues the day the legendary, still-lamented bowling alley closed down? Did you eat at the Coop and sometimes wish you hadn't? Rented a Hewlett-Packard calculator by the hour for taking tests? Did you wait for hours to register before online registration arrived? Marvel at the garish purple-and-orange motif of the Treehouse? Or get your hair cut at the barbershop, play a game of pool, watch TV on the color television, or learn how to "tired dance" during dance marathons in the Grand Ballroom?

Perhaps you were one of those who rushed the stage in 1968 when Jimi Hendrix and the Experience played. Or caught the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1983 or Dethklok in 2007? Maybe you'll even admit that you were one of the 5,000 who viewed the adult film, um, "classic" Deep Throat when it screened at Ackerman in the late '70s, or, in 2008, watched the similarly adult Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge in Ackerman Ballroom.

Of course, movies remain a staple of Ackerman's offerings, although sometimes the students overdo it a bit. Like the former student who wrote on the UCLA Facebook page that she saw Godfather I, II and III in Ackerman — "back to back to back. I spent half a day there. Ouch!"

And, of course, Ackerman has continued to host more serious and important gatherings, speeches, lectures and conferences over five decades on issues ranging from education to politics to sustainability.

But the space is so much more than memories, naughty or nice. When it opened in 1961, UCLA had no South Campus, no Inverted Fountain, no Sculpture Garden (Franklin Murphy had just become chancellor the year before), no Pauley (and no championships). The Department of Ethnomusicology had just opened. There was no Broad Stem Cell Center, no Gonda, no California NanoSystems Institute. The School of Public Health was just about to open. And the hospital — the one before Ronald Reagan — was only 5 years old.

It was a nice little commuter school, but it was poised for greatness. In the next decade, the UCLA we know — the world-class UCLA — would take shape.

"It was a period of UCLA growing up and maturing and becoming a full-fledged university, and the student union was an important part of that," remembers Joel Wachs '61, a student leader at the time who was involved in gaining student approval for what was later named Ackerman Union. And in the decades to come, the new union would serve another vital purpose as a silent witness to changes in student — and societal — tastes and attitudes.

Birth of a Building

There was, of course, a student union before Ackerman, but by the 1950s Kerckhoff Hall was no longer adequate. The gothic building had been dedicated in 1931, when there were only 6,100 undergraduates on the UCLA campus. By 1961, when the new student union opened, there were nearly 19,000 undergraduates, graduate students and interns/residents. With the construction of UCLA's first high-rise dormitory — Dykstra Hall — in the late 1950s, the campus was on its way to becoming a vibrant residential campus.

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Wachs, a lawyer who served 30 years on the Los Angeles City Council and is now president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York City, says he and others on campus felt that UCLA needed a sense of community, "a place for students to gather and meet and feel a part of something," instead of having to go to Westwood Village or elsewhere to socialize.

Wachs and William C. Ackerman '24 — who headed the student-run AS UCLA and, when he retired, became the union's namesake — were among those who investigated the idea of constructing a new building. But at the time, the University of California considered a student union to be an "auxiliary" building not related to the instructional program, and thus not eligible for state funding. Nor was gift funding available at that time for such a project.

Ultimately, a student referendum overwhelmingly approved a plan to raise student fees beginning in 1960 by $12 a year to repay a loan from the UC Board of Regents and revenue bonds to finance the $5-million project. The new student union would be built adjacent to the old one, near the geographical center of campus.

Assessing themselves fees was an act of generosity on the part of the students at the time. Most of them never had a chance to use the new student union themselves, as was the case with Wachs, who graduated just two months after the building opened.

"People who opposed the student union would say maybe it would be nice, but it's not more important than a library or a medical center," Wachs says of the campaign for Ackerman. "But it isn't either-or. To be a great school, you need it all."

The First Look

The student union featured a Grand Ballroom/Community Lounge; separate men's and women's lounges; music listening rooms; billiards, pool, table tennis and card rooms; dining facilities; vending machines; and a TV room.

Welcome as it was, no building as dynamic as a student union ever stays the same or fulfills every intention that its planners think it might. Take, for example, the way the Grand Ballroom/Community Lounge evolved.

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Originally, it was thought that the giant room would act as a sort of hotel ballroom, where proms and other formal occasions would take place for up to 1,000 couples. Between such glamorous events, the ballroom would revert to a student lounge defined by islands of dark brown rugs studded with modern sofas and chairs and accommodating about 150 people. That's not how things worked out, however. The huge space and high ceilings proved to be too intimidating for most students, so its use as a lounge eventually lapsed.

Still, the Grand Ballroom has gotten plenty of use, hosting almost every kind of activity that can be found on a college campus. By the time the student union was named in honor of the retiring Bill Ackerman in 1967, nearly 16,000 events had taken place there, attracting almost 1.3 million people.

"The only event I can think of that we haven't scheduled there has been an act with 20 circus elephants," Ackerman wrote in his 1969 book, My Fifty Year Love-In at UCLA.

The First Food

Then there are the dining areas. When the student union opened, the main dining facility was Level 2's Terrace Room, a cafeteria-style food service along the lines of what had been offered in Kerckhoff. And there was the Coop — engraved in one alum's memory as "the kind of place that smells like old onions."

The food, available only in the Coop (nee The Cooperage, but nobody ever called it that) and in the Terrace Room, was institutional and bland (although Bruins quickly learned that if you went heavy on the carrots in the pay-by-the-bowl salad line, you could fill up pretty good). Even 15 years later, the food was, shall we say, problematic. Arnold Anisgarten '76 recalls the Coop's burger basket, which featured "pre-made hamburgers and french fries that sat for a half-hour before you bought it." But there were also chocolate shakes, he recalls fondly, "close to the soft-serve ice cream, so nothing would fall out."

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If you went to school in the 1970s, you might remember one of the early renovations: the fresh, new Treehouse — where the Terrace Food Court is now — so-named because of its live ficus trees. Alas, eventually the trees died, some say because the energy crisis forced a lights-out policy at night that hampered photosynthesis, though others said it was the cold coffee that was poured into the soil — or perhaps it was the all-too-present cigarette smoke. (Ackerman Union is smoke-free these days.)

The Treehouse was symbolic of its time. The institutional approach that guided the building's origins gave way in the '60s and '70s to the same forces roiling the country as a whole.

Anne Pautler, who attended graduate school in Westwood, edited the Daily Bruin during the Watergate era and spent 20 years at AS UCLA , the last few as director of marketing, explains that "the '60s and '70s were really about being against regimentation. It was, 'No, we are not getting crew cuts and we are not going to dress alike and we are not going to stand in line when you tell us to.' So instead of this huge space like an airport or bus station, all of a sudden you have different levels, lattices with grow lights, big parachute-like canopies with all of these wild prints — plaids and stripes and purple and green and orange."

Over the years, though, franchise operations were invited in, including Panda Express, which came to Ackerman in the early '90s and originally was thought to be a bit exotic, though now it's just what many students eat every day. Many other chain restaurants also have found a niche at Ackerman, from Rubio's Mexican Grill and Wetzel's Pretzels to several along what's now called "Avenue A": Carl's Jr., Jamba Juice, Taco Bell, etc.

The Store Story

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Just as important as a place for lunch between classes is a place to buy things needed for college life. UCLA students have been lucky to have the UCLA Store, which caters to student needs not just for textbooks — because the primary goal of the store is to supply materials for the academic mission — but for numerous other essentials of college life: "BearWear" sweatshirts and other clothing; one of the most fun collections of stuffed toys ever assembled in L.A.; computers; and convenience foods, which now include such things as enhanced waters.

The store also attracts outside shoppers, including Japanese tourists who are especially fond of BearWear, though not so many as before the Japanese economy crashed in the '90s. John Sandbrook '91, M.B.A. '93, who first entered UCLA in 1967 and later served as an administrator, says UCLA BearWear was so popular with Japanese visitors that they came to the UCLA Store by the busload to buy clothing and gifts. "Even many of the ad signs in the store were in Japanese," Sandbrook said.

Also giving an occasional boost to sales is the participation of UCLA's football team in the Rose Bowl, though, sadly, not since 1999 has UCLA competed in the New Year's Day event. Ackerman Union and other AS UCLA services have had their ups and downs, but today the student-run nonprofit is a $75-million operation, including the store and food services. Many credit Donald Findley, who was hired as AS UCLA's executive director in 1970 and served for 11 years, for putting AS UCLA on healthy financial footing.

Findley turned around what was then a money-losing operation and instituted many improvements, including remodeling the students' store. Among his innovations was a "books by the pound" sale, in which selected books were sold by weight and declared to be "nutritional for your mind, not your hips." Previous executive directors also included Jason Reed, Charles Mack and Patricia Eastman.

Today, AS UCLA Executive Director Bob Williams oversees an immense operation with 2,000 student employees and 250 regular staff. Of Ackerman Union, he says: "This building has always been by and about the students. Whenever there was a need or a void, whether it was a place to eat or to study, the students figured out how to bring it to campus and provide it for themselves."

Being There

Not that there haven't been differences of opinion over the years, including the great coffee dispute during Findley's tenure, when the price was raised from 10 to 15 cents a cup. Despite numerous anti-increase editorials in the Daily Bruin, the increased price prevailed.

During the 1970s, there were two significant happenings involving Ackerman Union. The first was when the university switched over to a computer enrollment system, "resulting in chaos — lines in the thousands, threats from the fire marshal, a two-day marathon of students waiting in line," says Steven Halpern '73, who has been writing a history of student life at UCLA .

Then in May 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War protests on campuses across the country, California Governor Ronald Reagan closed the campus in the wake of the Kent State shootings. Ackerman Union became "strike headquarters" for a brief time.

Political and cultural discourse, in fact, is a big part of the Ackerman legacy. Valarie de la Garza '91, also a former Daily Bruin editor, remembers seeing Maya Angelou speak there, and Sinead O'Connor just when the singer ignited controversy over her remarks about Ireland and the Catholic Church.

Back to the Future

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Ackerman always competed with, or complemented, Kerckhoff as the preferred place to hang out on campus. But today's students are considerably more utilitarian about the former. "When you're in a hurry and you need it immediately, you come to Ackerman," notes Fahmida Rashid '12. And Dan Block '13 adds that Ackerman "is kind of a one-stop building for everything from sitting to organizing to getting a haircut."

Some Bruins are flat-out wistful that Ackerman has changed so much. Doctoral student D'Artagnan Scorza '07, M.A. '11, co-chair of the Black Graduate Student Association and a former Student Regent, says that when he arrived in 1998, "Ackerman was one of two places on campus that you went if you wanted to do things [the other was a small coffee shop up by the residential halls]. Today, that's not the Ackerman I experience as a grad student. It's become this all-service center that has a lot of corporate businesses. Just not the same feel."

But the one thing many Bruins agree on, no matter what era they're from, is how cool it would be to have a bowling alley in Ackerman again. Indeed, no story about Ackerman Union is complete without a paean to that beloved 10-lane alley that was closed in 1992 — the victim of other space needs that could serve more students.

The bowling alley was a hangout for many Bruins over the years, especially in the '70s when it installed a Pong video game, which the students quickly learned to fix so they could get games for free — until the manager found out and put the kibosh on the gambit.

One story about its closing involves Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's size-16 bowling shoes, which were kept for him in the alley in case he ever wanted to toss a different kind of ball around. The shoes are now someone's precious souvenir, a lasting reminder of another era. And bowling pins from the alley are still kept by at least a few Bruins as mementos.

We aren't going to speculate how they got them. That's between them, their conscience and Ackerman Student Union.

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