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Fellowship, Talk, and Beer! The University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union

| June 23, 2015 | 0 Comments

Mural art celebrates 19th century German student culture in Madison, Wisconsin.

By Peter Vogt
Photographs courtesy Peter Vogt.

After a long trip from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica—basking in 22°F late summer warmth—I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin to begin graduate school one subzero morning in February, 1963. I first reported to the professor who had hired me as a technician on “the Big Ice”, then walked across the street from Science Hall to the Memorial Student Union. Looking for some hot lunch and much-needed coffee, I discovered “Der Rathskeller”, a kind of beer hall cafeteria distinguished by soaring arches and  traditional German murals and proverbs, depicting facets of 19th century student life, painted on all the walls.

The Rathskeller (or Ratskeller) evolved in Germany and surrounding regions as a bar or restaurant in the “Keller” (cellar) of a town or city hall (Rathaus). City councilors and other functionaries could gather there after work for informal shop talk and fellowship—while quaffing beer or wine. The “Rat” or “Rath” part of this word, related to the “Rat” in “Rational” or “Rathaus”, is correctly pronounced as raht, not to rhyme with or related to ‘wRath’ or rodents. However, the abbreviated form “Rat” is, at least in Madison, pronounced to rhyme with the rodent.

In time, the Rathskeller idea spread from city hall basements to the outside world, including universities. There are today numerous Rathskellers in the US and around the world, but the one at the University of Wisconsin, dating from 1928, is truly unique, at least in the USA.

In the years that followed my first visit, I would spend countless hours in the University of Wisconsin  Rat: eating, drinking, grading Geology 101 tests, studying, people-watching, dozing off and, not least, socializing. Four years later I was even interviewed for my first steady job in the Rathskeller, which back then as today, remains a Madison landmark.

A cavernous room with hefty oak tables, the “Rat” is actually on the ground floor, not in the Keller (cellar). However, overall the ‘Rat’ resembles Bavarian beer cellars, with tap beer and cafeteria food. Although the menu is printed in Fraktur and advertises “Haus Favoriten”, visitors expecting authentic German fare may be disappointed.

Viewing the Rathskeller wall murals transports the visitor back into 19th century German student life, the Germany most German immigrants to America had left behind. The murals were painted for the Rathskeller by German-trained artist Eugene Hausler in 1928. Next to the artwork are old German proverbs—many of them rhymed—on studies, beer, wine, drama, athletics, student government, music, philosophy, and more.

In 1978 the adjoining billiard room was repurposed into a tavern room, its walls decoRated by German immigrant Kurt Schaldach (born 1913 in Danzig, German Empire-today Gdansk, Poland) with another set of murals. Augmenting this décor, supporters donated German type beer mugs to create a long “rail” of steins. This Rathskeller annex, funded by the UW Class of 1952 to commemoRate the Rat’s 50th anniversary, was dubbed Der Stiftskeller (“Monastery cellar”), the name inspired by St. Peter’s StiftsKeller in Salzburg, Austria. However, Schaldach chose to illustRate his students as bearded gnomes with red hats, pointed and tasseled, like modern lawn elves. The scenes were inspired by 1932 color photos of the Munich Rathskeller.

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