Renovation and Construction Showcase: University of Wisconsin–La Crosse

University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, “The U” Student Union


Submitted by: Larry Ringgenberg, Director, University Centers 

QUICK FACTSLa Crosse Student Center

Campus type: Four-year, public
Full-time enrollment: 10,500
Project broke ground: October 2014
Project completed: January 2017
Total area: 204,787
Floors: 3
Project cost: $53.3 million
Funding source: 100% student fees
Architects: KINDNESS Architecture + Planning – Milwaukee, Wisconsin; HSR Associates – La Crosse, Wisconsin 


Dining and kitchen: 11,477 sq. ft.
Theatre: 2,683 sq. ft.
Student organization suite/complex: 11,533 sq. ft.
Two-story entertainment café: 5,295 sq. ft.
Multipurpose room: 12,384 sq. ft.
Meeting rooms: 9,723 sq. ft.
Recreation/game room: 2,382 sq. ft.

Smart people in a beautiful place. That’s what architects and planning team members at University of Wisconsin–La Crosse wanted to convey in a new student center that would replace the 60-year-old Cartwright Center.  

“Our architects listened to what people wanted and determined that putting money into Cartwright would fix the infrastructure of the building,” said Larry Ringgenberg, director of university centers. “But it would not provide the facility that people wanted to hang out in. It would never serve as the center of campus.” 

As the university had grown over the years, the Cartwright Center was on the perimeter of a campus surrounded by nature. During the planning process, the architects heard a call to design a facility that was in tune with area. “They heard that students come to La Crosse for a great education, but also, because the area is beautiful. We have the Mississippi River, the bluffs, and the marsh, all within walking distance of the facility.” 

The project brought together university professionals, the architects, State of Wisconsin representatives, contractors, and most importantly, a wide cast of student representatives from student government, programming groups, multicultural groups, and fraternities and sororities. Students remained involved after the planning stage and were provided tours during construction as one way to keep enthusiasm high about the project. 

La Crosse Student CenterDining options are always important. There are eight different dining venues, including wood-fired pizza, a salad bar, delicatessen, a grill, and a vegan dining service. Unique aesthetics include four fire places, two of which are double-sided, and three balconies, including one in the new student organizations complex called the COVE. 

This large student organization space was created to foster interaction between the leaders of student organizations. Each office area in the COVE consists of private space and a front porch for interacting with other groups in the space. There are also community areas for groups to work together. 

The first floor information center’s terrazzo floors lead outside to where three rivers—the La Crosse, the Black, and the Mississippi—meet, and the front of the building was inspired by Grandad Bluff. Other natural symbolism in the building includes columns that look like trees, and the ground floor ceiling emanates sunrays. 

With state-of-the-art heating, ventilation, and cooling systems, LED lighting throughout, and amenities like showers for bikers, the facility was able to earn a LEED Gold certification. Digital signs have replaced bulletin boards, laser projectors are in place to increase longevity of use, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems exist in the program spaces, and student program volunteers have after-hours access through key cards.  

“Student traffic has increased,” Ringgenberger said. “The building is creating excitement and more interest from applicants to the university.”

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