Popular Stiftskeller reopens after renovation, restoration

February 7, 2014 By Käri Knutson

Der Stiftskeller

Classic wooden tables and hand-painted wall murals are part of the completed renovation of Der Stiftskeller in the Memorial Union. The comprehensive construction and renovation work, part of the Memorial Union Reinvestment (MUR) project, aims to preserve the building’s historic character while improving its accessibility and infrastructure.


If we can’t enjoy the Terrace quite yet, the new and improved Der Stiftskeller is a pretty good option.

After four months of construction, the popular gathering space located inside Memorial Union reopened Monday. While new and improved, great care was taken to preserve its long history.

“Overall, our intent was to make sure it feels right,” says Melanie Taylor, Memorial Union Reinvestment project manager of the Boldt Co. and a 2004 UW–Madison engineering graduate. “This feels right.”

The renovation of Der Stiftskeller is part of the Memorial Union Reinvestment. Phase I construction began in summer 2012 and is expected to be complete in summer 2014 with phase II starting in the fall of 2014 and expected to be complete by summer 2016.  This is the first comprehensive restoration of the Union since its construction in 1928.

Photo: Billiard tables in Der Stiftskeller

Billiard tables are part of what makes Der Stiftskeller a popular campus gathering place.

Careful attention has been paid to preserving the past while improving the space. Case in point: the new bar is made in part from salvaged wood of a decayed oak tree that once stood on the Terrace. During its construction, Taylor would get calls from the maker of the bar saying that they could see wormholes and imperfections.

“But that’s exactly what we wanted,” Taylor says.

The new bar has much more space and six registers for faster service.Two windows will now directly serve the Terrace. The old windows were opaque; the new ones are clear, brightening up the space even on a February afternoon.

The bar will offer more beer brands, featuring numerous local breweries.“We’re really looking forward to people seeing the selection,” says Jim Long, Wisconsin Union restaurant division director.

Long went to UW–Madison and has worked at Memorial Union for 19 years, so he understands the historic importance of Der Stiftskeller.

Photo: Beer stein in Der Stiftskeller

A stein representing the 76 that have been on display since the 1960s is safely protected in a glass case.

“I really like the atmosphere,” Long says. “It’s such a great gathering spot.”

Der Stiftskeller, German for “cellar of the founders,” opened in 1962 in the former billiard room. Shelves, also made from the fallen oak tree, will eventually hold the 76 steins that have been on display since the 1960s, when Wisconsin Union Directorate chairs and trustees were asked to make contributions that would then be honored with a stein.

Currently, one stein is on display, safely protected within a glass case and representing all of the steins until construction at Memorial Union is completed. When the steins were moved prior to the project, Union staff discovered that a few contained secret notes. Many of the messages were left by former employees with one even containing a short film script about the day in the life of a Stiftskeller employee.

There’s plenty of history at Der Stiftskeller, including the beloved murals, painted by Kurt Schaldach in 1978, that adorn its walls. Highly trained artisans from Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wis., spent weeks carefully recreating the artwork with incredible detail and accuracy, trying to duplicate brush strokes.

Most of the unique German murals on the walls of Der Stiftskeller were preserved, while some of the murals were moved and reproduced to make room for a new elevator that will finally make the west end of the building handicap accessible. 

“This is a sacred space to people. We wanted it to be the same,” says Howard Haas, project manager from Conrad Schmitt. “It should look like no construction was done.”

Other west wing areas reopening in fall include Outdoor UW (melding of Hoofers, Outdoor Programs and Outdoor Rentals), the Craftshop and Mini Courses, the Play Circle Theater and the Wisconsin Union Theater.

See updates on the Memorial Union Reinvestment project.