West Union: Duke’s Intentional, Integrated Dining & Student Gathering Hub

Right in the heart of Duke's campus center, the freshly renovated Duke University West Union is a gathering place where the student community comes alive. Inside, students can meet with friends, check out live entertainment, add their voices to the topics that matter to them, drive cultural change, and explore authentic flavors at any of the 13 dining venues.

Designed from the ground up to be the hub of the Duke community, this state-of-the-art facility is where friends meet, ideas are exchanged, and lasting memories are made. West Union offers world-class dining from 13 restaurants, live entertainment spaces, comfortable lounges and niches, and rooms for organization and group meetings. There’s even a teaching kitchen that will host celebrity chef events and serve as a pop-up restaurant to create ever-changing dining options.

“We’re excited about how West Union enhances the Duke experience,” said Larry Moneta, Vice President for Student Affairs. “This space is all about bringing our community together—a place where students, faculty and staff can connect, explore and, of course, dine.”

The 13 restaurants represent a diverse range of authentic culinary options, including sushi, Indian, pastry, vegan, Italian, southern-style, and more. Most of the venues are unique to West Union and operated by local Durham chefs, providing a one-of-a-kind opportunity to savor exclusive and innovative meals. “West Union adds to an already incredible selection of delicious meals available at Duke,” said Robert Coffey, Director of Dining Services. “The Daily Meal recently ranked Duke Dining first in the nation for ‘Best Colleges for Food in America.’ Our focus is on getting even better by continuing to serve our students the best possible dining experience.”

West Union was originally constructed in 1931 by Julian Abele, the same architect behind Duke’s Chapel and most of West Campus. During its long history, it has been home to a student bank, barber shop, laundry facility, bars and more. Most recently, West Union housed administrative offices. The nearly four-year renovation restores this building to its roots as a vibrant student center.

Rooted in Duke Heritage

Rooted in the rich Duke heritage and inspired by modern innovations, the West Union renovation maintains the great gothic architecture Duke is famous for while integrating contemporary touches. The design of West Union beautifully blends Duke’s rich legacy with the latest innovations, creating a building that looks right at home among the historic architecture while also feeling completely modern.

Outside, you’ll see terracotta fins on the building. Functionally, they provide shading for the interior atrium. From a design standpoint, they add a filigree that complements the surrounding gothic architecture. Also, the orange color matches the orange hues naturally occurring in the Duke Stone.

To help bridge the aesthetic from old to new, “Blackened Steel” was fabricated for use in the portals that connect the historic spaces to the central market. Some of these portals are a full three stories tall. The process of blackening steel can be unpredictable and inconsistent, so careful attention was paid to get the look just right. The large glass façade—the surface area is nearly 6,000 square feet—on the south side does more than just fill West Union with natural light. It blurs the line between outside and inside, so those enjoying a meal can still feel connected to campus.

Inspiration for the design came from open-air food markets within the U.S. and around the globe. These markets, filled with fresh foods and space to interact and mingle, represent a healthy eating culture that includes and sustains the entire community. Above, a nearly 20-foot glass skylight spans between the existing walls of the Cambridge Inn, Great Hall and the Market core. The skylight and “street” below create a bright, day-lit environment that feels like a bustling, outdoor market. Look around and you’ll see more wide open spaces than walls. The majority of the public space has been designed as an atrium, with high ceilings and open sight lines. In some places, you can stand on one side of the building and see all the way through to the other.

Even though certain updates had to be made to serve the needs of today’s students, the Great Hall and Cambridge Inn were left as unchanged as possible. The 100-year-old wood ceilings were completely restored. And with the addition of dining balconies, students now have an even better view of the beautiful woodwork ceiling. The gargoyles you see in the pub were removed from the building during renovations, then returned and incorporated in the updated design.

Careful consideration was given to the environmental footprint of the building. By putting together a plan to reduce water use and maximize energy efficiency, West Union is LEED Certified. Additionally, a significant portion of the funding for the renovation came from an $80 million gift from the Duke Endowment—the single largest philanthropic gift in the university’s history. It took a team of 50 designers to create the final vision for West Union, and—at full construction— nearly 300 workers a day on site working in two shifts. This building was created to serve the entire Duke community. It’s open to students, faculty, staff and alumni as well as visiting families, Durham residents and anyone else who comes to our campus. It’s a place that brings people together.

Unique Dining Venues and Community Building

The majority of dining venues in the building are unique. Even the Au Bon Pain in West Union offers special items that won’t be found at any other ABP location. Duke called on well-known and respected local restaurant owners to create and operate the venues in West Union. The result is a truly amazing and one-of-a-kind dining experience. Instead of typical fast-food fare, West Union offers a huge selection of global dining options. Each vendor crafts meals true to the heritage and culture of the region it originated. Authentic recipes. Traditional cooking techniques. And flavors that you won’t find anywhere else.

At most venues in West Union, you can watch your meal being prepared right in front of you. You see the quality and freshness of the ingredients, you watch them being chopped and prepared, you smell the delicious aromas, and you can even hear the chopping and sizzling. Whenever possible, local ingredients are used to help support our community. It also helps ensure that the food is as fresh as possible.

Supporting the global community is also important. There’s a strong focus on using resources responsibly, choosing sustainably sourced food, and making a positive impact on the world around us. Even the selection of beverages was carefully considered. West Union offers a variety of healthier alternatives to soda, at a very affordable price. In terms of layout, larger, family-style dining spaces and areas were created to offer a special experience for groups dining together.

Food can be ordered from any venue then brought to the group area, so everyone can enjoy their own favorite while still gathering together. Certain elevated dining areas, like those in the Cambridge Inn, provide a unique perspective and vantage point for people watching. To make it easier to schedule and make sure groups have their opportunity to dine together, select dining areas can be reserved in advance.

The West Union renovation has been a highly visible project on campus, but it represents more than simply an exciting new building. West Union is one part of Duke’s vision for the future of food and community at Duke.

Photography courtesy Duke Photography

About the Author
To learn more about the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, please visit https://nicholas.duke.edu.