A history of the University Center at St. John’s

The University Center had less than a stellar beginning.

Upon opening in 1972, the University Center was declared “too small for student needs” by Donald Z. Scheiber, the director of Campus Activities at the time, according to the Feb. 4, 1972 edition of The Torch.

According to the article, Scheiber stated that the building turned out to be between one-fourth to one-third of what the University’s students needed at the time.

Early in 1970 the plan to build a much larger Student Union was struck down by the University’s Board of Trustees in favor of a plan which would build two wings onto what was then Alumni Hall, according to the Sept. 11, 1970 issue of The Torch.

“I believe there is a credibility gap between administration and students,” Student Union Board chairman Bryan Pisciotta told The Torch that week.

Pisciotta and Sal Benisatto, the Student Council president in 1970, both stated in the article, entitled “Student Union Building Cancelled,” that they heard then-University president, the Rev. Joseph Cahill, C.M., at a Student Council meeting say, “Don’t worry about students’ reaction because in two years everybody will have forgotten about the building.”

At that meeting, however, the Student Council, the predecessor of today’s Student Government, Inc., voted to accept the proposed plan under certain stipulations.

The stipulations were that the wings built in Alumni Hall, presently Carnesecca Arena, would serve for student activities only and that Marillac Cafeteria and the Marillac sub-basement would remain for student use along with the lounge in the basement of St. John Hall and the lounge in St. Albert Hall. These areas would also remain under the direct control of the Student Council.

“This is no substitute for a Student Union building,” read The Torch’s staff editorial in the Sept. 11, 1970 issue.

Things changed in early 1971, as the University made plans for a temporary facility to serve as a student center.

According to an Oct. 1, 1971 article in The Torch a “Student Union modular building” would be built to address student concerns and would be ready for occupancy by the end of Nov. 1971.

A description of the new facility was given in that issue.

“To the right of the lobby one encounters the Rathskellar (presently the Storm Center). This area will be outfitted in a true beer hall manner: dim lighting, paneled walls and booths, a brick like floor, and ‘butcher block’ furniture. Beer can be obtained at this bar.”

The article continues to state that a deli counter, dining facilities, a lounge, an information center, a game room and office space for several student organizations will be present in the facility.

The game room was removed in favor of administrative office space during the early 1980s, one of many additions to the building since 1972.

Recent campus improvements have placed the University Center back in the forefront of discussion.

“We have a much stronger national and regional student body,” said James Pellow, executive vice president and chief operating officer, “and we knew when we started down this path that with that was going to come a student with higher expectations, a need to mix traditional local students with students from across the country and we needed to provide the venues to do that.

“We have all these great new facilities but it’s never enough because there are 20 more that we want,” Pellow continued. “Do you build another residence hall for $40 million? Do you renovate Carnesecca, which was built in 1951? There is probably between $150 and $250 million in projects that we would really like and are things that people have asked for.”