It's fairly well-known that Wisconsin has a history of being the soil into which many German-speaking immigrants put roots, so it doesn’t seem surprising to find a European-style Rathskeller and Stiftskeller in the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Complete with soaring arches, vaulted ceilings, dark wood, evocative murals with German slogans, displays of beer steins, and—of course—a bar serving beer, these spaces for the congregation of students are also used and appreciated by townsfolk and visitors alike.
However, the official history claims the German themes were accidental, or perhaps providential. In 1927 Leon Pescheret, the Union’s French-born interior designer, was inspired by the bare space to remark on its similarity to a Rathskeller, or the cellar of a German village hall, where city fathers gathered for relaxation and refreshment after work. Since the space was intended to allow for the fellowship and refreshment of students, Pescheret was given permission to transform it along the lines of a Rathskeller. The murals, with German mottoes, were created by Eugene Hausler, who had trained in Germany and was very familiar with Rathskeller décor.
The adjoining Stiftskeller, or “cellar of the founders,” was created in 1962 when more space was needed for the overly-crowded Rathskeller. While the German theme was continued, a lack of funds delayed the addition of murals until 1978 when Kurt Schaldach, a German painter living in Milwaukee, was commissioned for the job. Schaldach was born in 1913 in Danzig, and studied art there before coming to the United States in 1952. One of the most striking murals in the Stiftskeller is Schaldach’s version of the “Battle between Beer and Wine.” Based upon the mural in the Munich Rathskeller, it depicts an army of beer steins streaming out of a town to assault a contingent of gnomes employing wine and champagne bottles with cork cannonballs to defend their Rhine Valley castle.An interesting note: If one travels about 45 miles southwest from the Memorial Union to visit Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, one can view yet another version of this fantastical battle!
We wonder how many other of these alcohol-infused battle scenes have been inspired from the one in Munich? Let us know if you’ve seen one, and send a photo if you can!