Sublime landscapes—Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone, Yosemite—inspired a nascent tourist industry in the United States in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Among those who helped foster an appreciation of sublime landscapes was naturalist John Muir. He found his inspiration in the Dells of the Wisconsin River, located near his childhood home. Like Muir, tourists found inspiration in the Dells, especially after photographer Henry Hamilton Bennett began marketing stereoscopic images of this spectacular landscape. Visitors began to arrive in large numbers after 1871, when a side-wheel steamer initiated regularly scheduled sight-seeing tours along the fifteen-mile stretch of the river that winds through Witches Gulch and Cold Water Canyon to Stand Rock. By the late 1920s, the Dells Boat Company boasted a “large fleet of luxurious and up-to-date Motor Boats and a modern oil-burning steel Steamer,” which allowed visitors to see “the handiwork of nature.”
In 1929, the company replaced its existing building at the Dells Boat Landing with a new structure meant to evoke a Mediterranean resort. At street level, the flat-roofed, stuccoed concrete building appears to be two stories tall, with an undulating canopy sheltering the two entrances and the ticket window in between. Above a row of rectangular windows are prominent false rafter tails, carved to look like Spanish vigas. From the water’s edge the building rises four stories above a rubble foundation and terminates with a rooftop pergola at one corner and a balustraded square tower at the other. Clay tiles cover the roofs of both, carrying out the Mediterranean theme. Overlooking the water from the third floor, arched windows open onto metal balconets. An elevator took visitors from street level to the boat ramp.