Henry Vilas Park, today one of Madison’s most popular places to picnic and play, began, like many of the city’s other parks, as a swamp. At one time, about five-eighths of the park’s land rested a foot below the sloshing waters of shallow Lake Wingra. In 1903, physician Edward Kremers and Madison congressman H. C. Adams suggested creating a public park along the lake’s north shore. As a developer for the Wingra Park Addition, then a Madison suburb, Adams knew that the park would enhance his real estate venture. John Olin, president of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, embraced the idea and turned to millionaire William Vilas for help. Vilas, a lumberman, former U.S. senator, and former secretary of the interior (under President Grover Cleveland), agreed to purchase the land if the association raised the funds necessary to straighten and dredge Wingra Creek and make other improvements. Vilas also asked that the park be named for his late son, Henry.
To develop the landscape plan, the association commissioned O. C. Simonds, who had recently completed the design for Tenney Park (DA49). The Simonds design converted almost forty acres of bog into parkland by dredging fill from the adjacent lake. Curvilinear paths wound around a four-acre lagoon, a picnic grove, a playground, and a meadow bordering Lake Wingra, all artfully landscaped with shade trees. On Sunday afternoons, crowds of music lovers enjoyed band concerts.
In the winter of 1910–1911, T. C. Richmond donated a herd of five deer, and thus was born the idea for the zoo. When it opened in 1911, it housed not only the deer but also small animals common to the area, including groundhogs, woodchucks, rabbits, rats, a raccoon, an eagle, a squirrel, and a red fox. Four years later, the park association commissioned the construction of this Bird House, which also contained areas for reptiles and fish. Claude and Starck designed it along Prairie Style lines. The two-story, flat-roofed central core is flanked by one-story, flat-roofed wings. Five narrow vertical windows soar the full height of the main block’s second floor, but the wide eaves and the canopy over the entrance cast deep horizontal shadows, anchoring the stucco-finished building to the earth. Originally a much larger canopy hung down from heavy chains; the present one appears to cantilever from squat piers framing the entrance. Large birdcages in the front recesses of the wings allowed for viewing birds from the outside. The building was rehabilitated in 2000 to serve as the visitor center, and an aviary was built next to it.