The importance of student life and the educational values deriving from it was recognized November 20, 1957, when ground was broken for the original Davies Center. Initially named the College Center, the building was the first student center built at what was then called Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire. Constructed at a cost of $750,000 — funded entirely by student fees — the building opened its doors to 1,708 students and 97 faculty in September 1959.
A notable visitor to the new College Center was Senator John F. Kennedy, who spoke on the Eau Claire campus November 12, 1959. A reception in the Presidents Room followed Kennedy’s address on international relations in the Little Theatre (later Kjer Theatre). Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States eight weeks later, and he campaigned aggressively throughout the region in the then-crucial Wisconsin Democratic Primary.
In December 1959, the College Center was named Davies Center, in memory of William R. Davies (1893–1959), second president of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. A special student-faculty-alumni-staff committee selected W.R. Davies College Center as the name for the building, and their recommendation was approved by the faculty council. The building name became official when the Board of Regents approved it only six days after President Davies’ death. Davies Center was the first building on the Eau Claire campus to be named for an individual. Schofield Hall received its name four months later.
Davies Center grew with enrollment. A 1964 addition doubled its size, with additional expansion and updates made to the building in 1976, 1982 and 1991. In 1999 a student-led marketing research project found that 70 percent of students, faculty and staff favored expanding and improving Davies Center once again. During the 1999–2000 academic year a committee of students, faculty and staff gathered student opinion through interviews, surveys and open forums. In 2000 students voted overwhelmingly to fund another redevelopment of Davies Center through their fees.
Eau Claire-based architectural and engineering firm Ayres Associates was retained in 2001 to examine and assess the current and future needs of Davies Center. The study determined that in addition to narrow corridors and low ceilings, crowded dining areas and a lack of sufficient meeting rooms and work spaces for student organizations, Davies Center also had significant structural and maintenance issues. The building required a partial to complete replacement of the roof, plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems. Problems included foundation cracks, asbestos in floors and insulation, non-energy efficient windows, no fire-protection sprinklers, and ADA accessibility issues. Davies Center was found to be in such poor condition that the original approved budget amount of $8.5 million would not be enough to expand the building and do the extensive renovations that were needed.
In 2003 a Davies Center Exploratory Committee was created through the Student Senate, to take part in the continuing research on how Davies Center could be improved to meet UW-Eau Claire's needs. A 2003 referendum that called for additional increases in student segregated fees to support a new building failed. But a spring 2005 survey found that about 75 percent of the 2,666 student respondents believed Davies Center needed renovation.
The Washington, D.C.-based facility planning firm Brailsford & Dunlavey evaluated Davies Center and produced cost estimates. That study found that the demolition, renovation and expansion of the existing Davies Center would cost anywhere from $41 million to a cost equal to a new facility approximately 148,200 square feet in size. The cost of a new facility was estimated at $51 million.
A potential redevelopment project was proposed in a December 2005 survey conducted by the Davies Center Exploratory Committee and Brailsford & Dunlavey. Sixty-four percent of student respondents supported the redevelopment project, with funds coming from segregated fees. The Davies Center Exploratory Committee secured support from the Student Senate, the University Centers Advisory Committee, the United Hall Council and Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich.
In December 2006 the UW System Board of Regents approved the student-initiated and student-funded $48.8 million redevelopment of Davies Center. By 2008 it was determined that a new student center building was needed and that the original Davies Center would be deconstructed.
The original Davies Center closed to the public in May 2012. The building left the campus landscape in August 2012, replaced with green space and an outdoor amphitheater.
> W.R. Davies University Center: A final goodbye (YouTube)
The original Davies Center was designed by the Eau Claire architectural firm Larson, Playter and Smith.