Fact and Comment
It was designed as the social solvent of the university--the place where the unintroduced might dispense with the introduction. While perhaps not explicitly, it was, in general, the idea of its builders that, in this sanctuary of brown oak and leathern upholstery, one undergraduate stranger might accost another and spend that enjoyable hour of chat of two travellers thrown together by the fortunes of the road during the wait for a train on a remote station platform. To a limited extent (a very limited extent) the Union has fulfilled this purpose. But bricks and mortar will not shut out the prevailing community atmosphere from a small precinct sacred to free-and-easy democracy, and, rightly or wrongly, Cambridge is not a back-slapping community. There are excellent things which it misses thereby, but such is, apparently, the unalterable case.
None the less, the Union was and is a centre of university life. The mass meetings are invariably held in its great living room, and the more important public lectures. It is a writing place, a reading, meeting, dining and studying place. 'It is working fifteen hours out of the twenty-four. The multitude of private clubs have undercut its clientele, Freshmen who live in the Union transfer their haunting grounds in their Sophomore and Junior years. In spite of a popular impression to the contrary, Cambridge is a place where young men are astonishingly busy. The town has the distinction of providing more attractive places of loaf in, and less time to loaf in them, than any other spot in the world. And the Union is only one of many.
This introduces the element of the walking distance." There was originally a proposal to locate the Union on Massachusetts avenue between the Yard and the Gold Coast, where every undergraduate of high or low degree would have fallen over it several times a day, for it is surprising how a four-minute walk deters able-bodied boys: The more attractive Quincy-street site was chosen, and the building is, consequently, off the main-travelled paths.
The most explicit answer to the riddle of the Union's four-year decline in membership is, however, that up to within very recent years, it was impressed on the mind of every Freshman that he not only ought not but could not keep house without a Union membership. The habit was formed in cubdom, and persisted. This zeal, it is understood, has been abated, with the above result. Yet the plan of admitting the Union membership fee as an item on the term bill--which means that the bill comes not out of my allowance but out of father's cheek--has not prevented the decrease, and this with a synchronous increase in the university enrollment. If, therefore, the Union stands chiefly for an experiment in Harvard democracy it has been, let us say, a qualified success. If Harvard does not desire democracy of that brand, this is the cue for the Union to stand for something else which Harvard does desire.