As the gleaming white granite Wisconsin State Capitol arose at the heart of Madison’s Capitol Park (now Capitol Square) in 1909, planner and landscape architect John Nolen drafted plans for a corresponding improvement for the entrance to the capitol from Monona Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). Nolen’s City Beautiful plan envisioned a row of Beaux-Arts classical public buildings stretching three blocks from the capitol to the Monona lakeshore, where a park would accommodate a train station, pools, and an esplanade. Nolen’s plan was never adopted. In 1934, Olin Terrace, built in tribute to civic leader John Olin, attempted to beautify the approach to the capitol with a view of the statehouse and Lake Monona from a terraced park at the foot of Monona Avenue. However, below the limestone balustraded terrace lay a rubbish-strewn rail line, a hobo jungle, and fishing shanties and docks. To remove these eyesores, municipal leaders conceived a plan for a civic auditorium, city hall, and county courthouse, linked to a lakeshore scenic drive.
Frank Lloyd Wright agreed to design this complex, and in 1938 he presented his plan to extend the tiny Olin Terrace park into a large semicircular plaza over the lake, its lower levels providing a five-thousand-seat auditorium, county jail, city hall, courthouse, and railroad station. A six-lane highway and a marina stretching out over Lake Monona completed the complex. For Wright, this was an important project, one that in his view would be a “long awaited wedding between the city and beautiful Lake Monona.” The county supervisors voted down the plan by a single vote, largely because of Wright’s reputation for failing to pay local contractors, masons, and suppliers.
Over six decades, Wright and others proposed various plans for the site, all of which met strong opposition. By the 1990s, however, Wright’s increasing popularity brought renewed interest in developing his plan. Despite various environmental and aesthetic objections to the project, Mayor Paul Soglin, with support from Governor Tommy Thompson, secured public and private financing for a civic and convention center inspired by Wright’s design. Working with a plan Wright developed in 1959, Wright’s student and Taliesin apprentice, Anthony Puttnam, developed the blueprints for the present building, completed in 1998. The exterior strongly reflects Wright’s rendering, completed seven weeks before his death. Its exterior is Wrightian with its spherical and spiral forms and its integration with the waterfront. The building’s interior, however, was redesigned as a convention center with meeting rooms, ballrooms, a catering kitchen, and an exhibit hall.
Wright intended to have people view the building from across Lake Monona. From there, the scene presents seven arched three-story windows of blue glass with scalloped detailing along the glazing. By night, the windows reveal the lit interior. Pairs of spherical towers flank the semispherical core, beyond which extend spiral ramps to twin parking garages. On the roof garden dome-shaped lights sit atop concrete saucers, and a large saucer holds a hemispheric fountain, dramatically lit at night. The building’s design deviates from Wright’s. To comply with environmental regulations, the building barely dips its toes in the water. Wright’s version would have filled in acres of the lake. Gone are glass-domed fountains on the rooftop and tiers of shrubs and plantings designed to evoke hanging gardens.
The building has three interior levels. On the second level, a lobby, Lakeside Commons, hugs the upper story of the Exhibit Hall and opens onto views of the lake. The upper level offers meeting rooms, a banquet hall, ballrooms, and a lecture hall, and the Grand Terrace provides vistas of Lake Monona. Salmon-tinted walls and bright carpet patterns based on a Wright design decorate the interior.