Students today know SUB I as the place where their student ID cards are issued and where they can grab a Chick-Fil-A sandwich. However, when it opened in 1974, it was first building of its kind on campus and the place to be. The Student Union Building was the first building at Mason conceived entirely with students in mind. It provided dedicated spaces for student clubs, government, media , leisure activities and services.
The original Student Union Building (today known as Student Union I or, simply, SUB I) was announced in January 1968 and was the first building at Mason intended to be entirely for student use. It provided dedicated space for student dining, student clubs, student government, student publications, and other student activities. Unfortunately, the building project was delayed for four years, due to difficulties gaining budget approval in the Virginia Legislature. Phase I of the Student Union Building’s construction broke ground on March 1, 1972. The building’s cost was estimated at $1.9 million at the time (about $9 million in 2023). However, upon completion, the Student Union's operating costs were to be supported predominantly by student fees. To achieve this, President Lorin Thompson added a "building fee" to tuition fees in 1973. By 1974, the Student Union was 97% student funded.
Because students funded the Student Union, they expected that the building would be entirely for student use, and that they would be engaged in decisions regarding its operation. However, the Board of Visitors and new Mason President Vergil Dykstra’s administration had its own plans for the building’s use and students’ inclusion in its governance, leading to conflicts and controversies before and after opening. For example, the Board of Visitors hired the Student Union's director without considering students’ input, although they had participated in the interview process. In addition, they relocated administrative offices for student services to the Student Union and opened its student-only dining room to faculty. Furthermore, the Board of Visitors unilaterally changed the building’s name from Student Union to University Union. Their decisions prompted backlash from students who felt they were funding the building with the understanding that it was for them.
When Phase I opened on February 1, 1974, it housed the offices of Career Planning, Financial Aid and Placement, Campus Ministry, Honor Committee, Student Government, and the University Union Director. The 40,000 square foot space also included meeting rooms, study lounges, spaces for student clubs and activities, a game room, a bookstore, a cafeteria, a card room, a television room, a music room, telephones, and an information desk. In addition to the amenities advertised by Mason’s administration, the Student Government ran a coffee house program in the building that featured live poetry and music on Fridays. The Student Union replaced the Ordinary and provided students with a permanent hangout spot. By the end of the school year in 1974, the Broadside noted that the building “glowed with activity” late into the evening.
Although students were grateful for the building, resentments simmered over the lack of communication from Mason’s administration. After the building opened, students voted to change its name back to the Student Union, and the presence of administrative offices in the building remained unpopular. Tensions over space in the Student Union reached a breaking point in the fall of 1974. Students found out that the administration planned to relocate the Campus Ministry to use its office for a newly hired scholarship placement assistant. As a result, the Student Government circulated a petition against the relocation of the Campus Ministry. Those who signed the petition said they were signing for students’ rights to give input in decisions regarding the Student Union Building. Within two weeks, the petition had five hundred signatures from students, faculty, staff and administrators. The three-week controversy between Mason students and administration regarding autonomy over the Student Union Building concluded when President Dykstra canceled the Campus Ministry’s move and gave the new staff member a smaller space until the completion of Phase II’s construction.
Construction on Phase II of the Student Union Building I began on January 1, 1974. It opened partially in May 1975 and completely in the summer of 1975. Phase II added 40,000 square feet to the building, doubling its size. Existing student clubs, fraternities, and student services received expanded space. Phase II added new amenities like a clinic, a counseling center, an arts and crafts center, a bank, dry cleaning, and a pub. The Rathskeller, Mason’s first and only student pub, operated in the Student Union from 1975 to 2019.
Phase III, which added to the back of the building, was completed in 2011. This additional space allowed the Registrar’s Office to move from the Chesapeake Module behind Fenwick Library into the Student Union. Many amenities originally located in the original Student Union eventually moved to Student Union Building II (The Hub) or the Johnson Center, but it retains its student focus and many original services and amenities. Financial Aid, Career Services, Health Services and the Counseling Center are still in the original Student Union. The building’s stairways look the same as they did in 1975, retaining the original walls and floors and still functioning as a place to hang posters and advertisements. In addition to the aforementioned student services, students new to Mason or craving waffle fries visit the building for the Mason Card office and Chick-Fil-A.