Memorial Union plaza

History of the Memorial Union

History of the UC Davis Memorial Union

Freeborn Plaza

The Memorial Union is the main student union at the University of California, Davis. It is the center, both figuratively and literally, of the UC Davis campus. Its numerous changes and renovations reflect the tremendous growth of the campus during the past 50 years.


The Memorial Union was completed in 1955 and dedicated in honor of 128 UC Davis students and alumni who lost their lives in military service from World War I through World War II.
The $1 million cost was funded by private support from the campus community, including funds raised by one of the earliest campaigns of the Cal Aggie Alumni Association. This one-story facility included a:

  • Dining commons
  • Kitchen
  • Faculty club
  • Student lounge
  • Alumni Association offices
  • Soda fountain
  • Student store


Freeborn Hall was added to the complex in 1961, the same year that the Department of Dramatic Arts, later renamed the Department of Theatre and Dance, was established. Freeborn Hall offered the first performance venue to the campus and remained the campus’ main venue for large groups and performances until the Mondavi Center opened its doors in 2002. During the ’60s and ’70s, it hosted groups such as the Grateful Dead and Simon and Garfunkel. Today, Freeborn Hall still holds large trade shows as well as some of the students’ favorite popular acts.
In 1966, with the help of another building campaign and a student fee, the campus completed the construction of a large addition to the Memorial Union. It included the:

  • Second, third and fourth floors over the main building, known as the “tower”
  • Games Area which housed the first and only bowling alley built in the city of Davis
  • Main branch of the UC Davis Bookstore

The Coffee House, a student operated eatery, opened its doors in the east wing of the building in 1968, promoting its “from scratch” menu items it is still famous for today in its newly renovated facility.


The first floor and the bookstore were remodeled and expanded in the early ’90s for $11 million. Changes included:

  • An additional 18,200 square feet in dining, lounge, recreational, and bookstore space
  • A new lobby and student service retail space were added to the first floor of the building
  • Relocating the Coffee House to the west side of the building with increased kitchen and seating space to accommodate the needs of a growing student population

In 1990, The Unfinished Dream mural was created by the Office of Student Affairs and the Campus Art in Public Places Work Group to portray UC Davis’ transition to “a campus of true diversity, reflecting the richness of its many cultures and supporting its growing underrepresented populations.”

In 1998, the Memorial Union complex underwent a major seismic renovation and took that opportunity to reconfigure space for student use. The project:

  • Added stiffening elements to the south side of the Memorial Union
  • Removed a concrete canopy from Freeborn Hall that was considered a major earthquake hazard
  • Installed a new elevator to the north entry
  • Updated all the restrooms to be made accessible by wheelchair

The Memorial Union Art Gallery got a major face-lift as did all of the office space in the tower. A new computer lab, called the Memorial Union Station, was added to the building in partnership with the Campus Information and Educational Technology (IET) Department. It became the most highly used computer lab on campus.


In 2015, the Memorial Union began a renewal process that spanned almost two years. The comprehensive renovation brought the historic Memorial Union back to life again as a dynamic on-campus destination for students and the UC Davis community. The project maintained the integrity of the Memorial Union’s history by reinforcing its importance to the campus, and returning to the architect's original design of an open floor plan.

  • A new, inviting entry to the Memorial Union continues the historic Centennial Walk. The concrete walkway starts at the end of Howard Way, goes through the Memorial Union Bus Terminal, through the Memorial Union's new entry and out to the Quad where it ends at what used to be the front doors of Shields Library.
  • The Memorial Union’s original purpose is now highlighted with an entire wall dedicated to Gold Star Aggies — former UC Davis students who lost their lives in military service. The Golden Memory Book, which contains their names, is accessible on a digital display.

In addition, a number of critical and strategic improvements were made to meet the needs of our student population.

  • The Games Area replaced the arcade games in favor of networked console video games, created a new lounge area and added numerous televisions. Four bowling lanes were removed in a shuffle to give the Campus Store more space, leaving 12 lanes, and creating a new home for the billiards tables.
  • The Campus Store was enhanced with a new layout and design, offering more space to textbooks. This project provided additional retail space and services needed by our growing student population, which has nearly tripled since the original UC Davis Bookstore was completed in 1966.

As the campus continues to evolve, the Memorial Union seeks to meet the growing needs of every UC Davis student by increasing opportunities for excellent services and programs.