The first student union was established at Cambridge University in England. Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, the first student union in North America, opened in 1896. But it was not until after the world wars that unions became popular on university campuses.
The student union idea was just beginning to catch on in the United States when Dorothy Straight decided to build one at Cornell. The post-World War I surge in college enrollment highlighted the grim social existence of students in "Collegetown" rooming houses, where it was hard to find a decent place to eat, much less a pleasant environment for socializing. Aware of what a difference the canteen and recreational centers had made in the lives of servicemen during the war, colleges transferred the concept to the union to solve many of the social problems of campus life. And how would colleges finance the building of unions? One answer came out of the war: create this new kind of campus democracy as memorials to those who died for democracy.
Universities had great hopes for student unions. The union would provide a common ground for students of all backgrounds and affiliations to get to know each other outside the classroom. It was felt that education in the art of living was as practical as a course in engineering.
Before Leonard Elmhirst left for India in 1921, Dorothy Straight made a second visit to Cornell, where she established links with several faculty members and President Livingston Farrand and began to plan the union building. Harold Fleck '12 with the Cornellian Council, suggested, "We should keep in mind future extensions" (words of a prophet). Professor Alexander M. Drummond of the English department was eager to include a small theater; it was difficult to stage plays in a Goldwin Smith lecture hall. Single Professors were excited about the prospect of a bachelor quarters in the new building.
For three years, Dorothy Straight worked tirelessly to ensure the new union met the requirements of the university. On June 15, 1924, a cornerstone-laying ceremony was held.
Cofer, R. H. 1990. The Straight story: an informal history of Willard Straight Hall Ithaca, NY: Cornell University