A student and community staple since its opening in the 1920s, the Sewanee Union Theater (lovingly referred to as the SUT), is now undergoing plans to be renovated along with the Biehl Commons in the coming months.
In an effort to “[create] a more enhanced community feel on and around the quad,” Sarah Boykin, Assistant Vice President of Campus Planning, Design and Construction, said, the plans are mainly centered around “reenergizing the University Avenue side of campus.”
Campus Planning is also interested in developing space in order to create another gathering space closer to the quad, thus renovating the Thompson Union into the Biehl Commons, according to Kevin Smith, a designer with RAMSA, the architecture firm charged with the project.
In a meeting on Wednesday, March 17, students were invited to take part in the conversations regarding the future plans for the Thompson Union Building and the SUT. All members of the Biehl Commons planning group were also in attendance to answer any questions attendants posed.
In this meeting, Boykin explained the reasoning behind the change by saying, “We would be able to open up that space to allow a view of Abbo’s Alley and a wonderful outside terraced porch.”
“This is in hopes of creating a more enhanced community feel on and around the quad,” Boykin continued.
Other plans for the renovation include a fireside lounge, cafe, stage, and an outdoor social commons, also complete with an outdoor screen and fireplace.
By knocking down the theater, more patio space, a better view, and greater ease of access would be possible. An affordable cafe run as an outpost of McClurg Dining Hall and several seating areas are planned to be housed in the current Thompson Union Building, while a porch, patio, and fireplace are planned to be in the area behind the building and will create another entrance to Abbo’s Alley.
The foundation of the SUT would still be in place and, however the roof and inner structures would be removed to create a more secluded area for events, separate from the open patio. Smith also noted that there is a possibility of including a screen on one of the remaining walls of the renovated SUT to continue film screenings.
Berner also noted the possibility of maintaining the weekly screenings by simply moving them to “one of the many other large areas on campus with screening abilities.”
However, this poses the question of the SUT’s possible closure and replacement.
Open Wednesday through Sunday nights weekly during the school year, the SUT hosts a wide array of films from the students Cinema Guild, from Disney sing-alongs to indie favorites.
The current low-cost activity affords students and community members the opportunity to interact with each other, bonding over the film they experience.
Campus organizations have often used the space as a place for community-building activities and learning opportunities.
This semester alone, HOLA, the NAACP, Kappa Delta sorority, and several other student organizations offered film screenings in cooperation with the SUT to engage with the student body.
Additionally, the change would impact students who work at the theater.
Josse Martinez (C’23) has been working at the SUT since his first semester at Sewanee. He said that he believes the SUT “is essential to student life at the University.”
However, he also said that “If we could renovate the SUT as opposed to completely getting rid of it, we want to change it to make it more welcoming, inviting, and updated.”
He noted that if the University would be able to add an Amazon account or other streaming services, the theater’s popularity would likely increase because of the ability to stream films as they are released as opposed to older movies.
Mary Pryor (C’22), a regular attendee, said, “I think one of the biggest things about the SUT is it is an underrated component of our campus community. It’s a semester like this that I have appreciated the SUT more as a gathering space.”
She continued,”I think the antiquated feel of the SUT is such an eccentric part of campus and it’s a great way to gather with friends and support the spirit of EQB for not just cult classics but also for important screenings.”
“It’s nights in the SUT singing and quoting movies at the top of my lungs that I remember most, and the best on-campus alternative for Sewanee nightlife,” Pryor said.