Mug Denizens of the ’80s Fund Major Renovation of the Beloved Hangout

Photos Karl Rabe and Vassar Archives

Sydney Passley-Harris ’26 and Mila Seifert ’26 discovered the Mug shortly after they arrived on campus this fall, and it soon became one of their go-to hangouts, a place where they could relax in comfortable chairs and sip bubble tea in the room’s soft, indirect lighting. “It’s just a very chill environment,” Passley-Harris said.

A person with long brown hair walks up a spiral staircase, underneath giant letters with lightbulbs that spell "The Mug."
Tens of thousands of Vassar feet have trod these spiral stairs over the past five decades.

It wasn’t until someone directed their attention to the rectangular, 22-foot-long piece of wood on the wall, its surface scarred by names and initials carved by Mug patrons decades earlier, that the two first-year students began to appreciate the hallowed space they now occupied. Told that the battered piece of wood was the original bar top, all that remains from the raucous campus pub that opened in 1975, their eyes widened in surprise. “Wow,” Seifert said. “That makes me love this place even more.”

A photo of a wooden surface with names and letters roughly scratched into it
The Mug’s original bar top contains thousands of memories.

Indeed, thousands of Vassar alums love the Mug. It was once the center of Vassar’s social universe, a large room in the basement of the Campus Center where whiskey and beer, loud music, and dancing—lots of dancing—forged fond memories and lasting friendships.

The Mug’s vibe gradually changed over the years, starting in 1984 when New York’s legal drinking age was elevated from 18 to 21. But while the crowds may have thinned a bit, the Mug kept its alcohol license until 2010, and it continued to be one of the most popular venues on campus for live concerts and other student events. Gradually, all that use took its toll. “Aside from a few cosmetic changes, nothing had been done to the place, and it was overdue for a fix-up,” said William Rush, Associate Director of Campus Activities.

A room full of students. Many sit on the floor, watching a band play music. Colored lights hang overhead.
The Mug’s renovation celebration drew hundreds of patrons in January 2023.

Completed this past summer, major renovations—new flooring, fresh paint, modern lighting, a new sound system, a DJ area and stage, and cushy furniture ideal for studying or socializing—have transformed the Mug from a campus pub into the “chill environment” of a coffee house.

A person with mid-length gray hair stands in a dark room lit by neon colors, speaking into a microphone while holding a sheet of paper.
President Elizabeth H. Bradley welcomes patrons to the renovation celebration by noting that some memories of The Mug are better left untold.

The Office of Campus Activities hosted a grand opening of sorts on January 20, marking the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking for the space where the Mug would be built. Students and others in the Vassar community quickly filled the room to its 150-person capacity soon after the celebration began, and lines to get into the Mug stretched up the winding staircase and across the College Center into the Main lobby. President Elizabeth Bradley opened the celebration. “We are here tonight to kick off the semester with a terrific party in honor of the 50th anniversary,” Bradley said. “As I understand it, so much has happened in this Mug—some of which can be said and some which are better left in memory.”

A closeup of a plaque that reads "Matthew's Mug Renovation 2022. Jonathan Lieberman ’85, In Memory of Mark Fletcher. Music was His Passion and Sountrack of His Life". In the background, two students descend a staircase under giant illuminated letters that read "The Mug".
Alum Jonathan Lieberman ’85 dedicated his donation for the Mug’s renovation to his step-son, Mark Fletcher.

Funds for the fix-up were provided by two alums who frequented the Mug in its heyday. One of the donors, Jonathan Lieberman ’85, said he wanted to ensure that today’s students would continue to use the space as a haven from the stresses of college life. “The Mug was a central part of life at Vassar when I was there, a part of the social fabric of the College,” Lieberman said. “I wanted to make sure the space continued to provide that historical role.”

He said he had spent a lot of time, not only in the Mug itself, but also in the long waiting lines that formed in the Retreat at the top of the spiral staircase that wound down to the entrance of the bar. “The Mug and the waiting line were good places to mix your different social and educational circles—your different worlds would collide there,” Lieberman said.

A crowd of people in a club setting smiling and talking with the main event offstage
Clearly, the renovated Mug is still a place for revelry.

The other donor, a member of the Class of 1986 who wishes to remain anonymous, agreed. “I have so many really fun memories of partying at the Mug, the dancing and good conversations, and you didn’t go there with all the same people,” the donor said. “I probably would never have become such good friends with people outside my dorm if it hadn’t been for the Mug.”

From its inception, the Mug was run exclusively by students, which many alums say gave it immediate credibility as a hip place. But one of the pub’s original managers, Peter Shanholt ’77, recalled an incident that took place just hours after its grand opening that could have caused its immediate demise. “The weekend we opened, there were some rugby matches on campus involving the Vassar, Union, and West Point teams,” Shanholt said. “The players came down to the Mug after their matches, and apparently in keeping with some rugby tradition, nine of them—three from each team—marched through the pub buck naked. We thought we might lose our liquor license a few hours after we opened.”

Fortunately, the rugby incident proved to be an anomaly. While often consuming considerable quantities of alcohol, the vast majority of patrons behaved themselves—and showing off one’s latest dance moves was the principal activity.

Two students stand next to a shelf with alcohol bottles, arms around each other's shoulders. The photo is somewhat dark and illuminated by flash.
A couple of bartenders circa 1991.

Steve Hankins ’85, P’13, ’17, a longtime Vassar trustee and former president of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC), tended bar in the Mug in his junior year and was a manager when he was a senior. He said the atmosphere in the Mug changed dramatically as the night progressed. “There was a mellow period from 8 to around midnight, and by 1 or 2 a.m. there was deafening dance music the rest of the night,” Hankins said. “This was the era of cassette tapes, and some people would create their own playlists and we’d put them on the sound system. I remember plenty of nights with punk music and lots of violent head shaking.”

Chip Reid ’77, now a National News Correspondent for CBS News, credits the Mug with helping to raise his standard of living while he was on campus. “Being a waiter at the Mug was one of the best-paying jobs on campus, especially because of the tips,” Reid said. “I’ve changed, but back then I was a total square and I hardly ever drank myself. But I watched a lot of my friends get trashed.”

Reid said he still had fond memories of a student who would order two or three rounds of Johnny Walker Black—the most expensive drink on the menu. “At the end of the night, he’d give me a $2 tip,” he said. “That was an eye-popping amount of money to me back then. I could buy an egg salad sandwich and a Coke at the Retreat for 90 cents, so that tip was a couple of meals for me.”

A round sign hung on a door. The sign has the text "Honoring the spirit of Fun and Friendship of Noyes 4th Floor 1982–84"
The anonymous donor for renovation sums up the spirit of The Mug in a few well-chosen words on a plaque on the wall.

While the Mug has undergone a major transformation since those days, recent alum Liam Manion ’22, who served as a student intern with the Campus Activities Office, was confident the Mug’s legacy would live on now that the renovations are complete. Manion said he wasn’t surprised that two alums had come forward to fund the project. “The Mug has been so much a part of so many lives at Vassar,” he said. “I can see why they’d want to revive it.”

February 9, 2023