Construction for Student Union Commons set for 2021

By Gresham Redman
Staff Writer

The plans for the creation of a social space at the site of the Thompson Union, outside the bounds of Greek or dorm life, continued with an update to plan construction for a student-centered gathering area. This update on the social commons was sent in an email containing the names of members of the planning committee, plans for community involvement with program development, and the architect on record.

Nancy Berner, University Provost, sent the notice out on September 16 explaining the current trajectory of the project and listed some things that students may look forward to with the creation of the new facility.

The new facility, planned to be situated where Thompson Union currently resides, will serve the general purpose of a social area. Amenities to be offered in the new facility are not currently known, but “broad and deep input from the entire campus community to explore the programming priorities for the space” will be taken into account during planning meetings scheduled for later this semester and open for all students to have their voice heard, according to the email.

The project comes as follow-up for a portion of the 2011 Masterplan which was dedicated to creating a space for all students to socialize in, and to enjoy a litany of other services all housed in a single building as the “University Common.” This was finalized in 2014 as the University Commons Plan as outlined on the University Provost page.

The single building plan has since been changed to a more dispersed model with multiple smaller buildings and spaces providing similar services grouped into a single building, such as the new Wellness Commons currently under construction where the University Bookstore was previously located.

Construction is expected to begin in January 2021 after a period of design and community input for the commons’s programming needs planned to last through the fall semester. It is not known if Thompson Union, currently housing the Sewanee Union Theatre and some university offices, will be renovated and added onto or torn down to make way for a more modern building.

The architect firm hired for the facility’s design is Williams Blackstock, which is based in Birmingham, Alabama. Williams Blackstock has worked on multiple university campuses  including University of Alabama, Birmingham and Auburn University creating a variety of student housing and academic buildings. They are no strangers to the Domain either, having worked on renovations for both Wiggins and Carnegie Halls in the past.

As for members of the Planning Committee, the standard officers include members of the University faculty, staff, and members of those respective offices at the School of Theology. Although the plan has been discussed for years, there isn’t necessarily widespread acceptance for the creation of this space.

“I don’t see the need for a student union,” said Molly Morgan (C’22). “We already have all the offices and amenities one would find in a student union on campus. I see Bishop’s Commons as Sewanee’s student union and I don’t see the need to mess with or throw money at something that is working perfectly effectively.”