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The site of what is now Madison was named DaJope (or Taychoperah) in the Ho-Chunk language, but Native Americans did not long remain in the area after European American settlers arrived. During the war that allied Ho-Chunks with Black Hawk’s Sauk band against a combined force of Illinois militia and U.S. troops, the path of the Sauks’ retreat to the Mississippi River took them across this isthmus, giving pursuing soldiers their first glimpse of the area. Following the Sauk Massacre of 1832, the victors banished the Ho-Chunks and the Sauks to more distant districts and claimed the isthmus as their own.

The oak-crested glacial ridges and exposed limestone cliffs at Four Lakes impressed federal judge James Doty, who envisioned the isthmus between the lakes as Wisconsin’s capital. In the spring of 1836, Doty and Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s governor-elect, purchased 1,200 acres, on which Wisconsin’s territorial capital was established in November of that year. The name of the new city was to honor the memory of President James Madison, who had recently died. Doty proposed that the capitol building lie on a ridge separating Fourth Lake (Mendota) from Third Lake (Monona). He oversaw the drawing of the city’s original plat, by John Van Suydam of Green Bay, with diagonal streets radiating from the corners of the Capitol Square across a grid of city blocks. State Street would connect the capitol to College Hill, the proposed university’s campus.

Contractor Augustus A. Bird of Milwaukee led work teams that arrived in June 1837 to build a squat, tin-domed capitol of local oak and maple timber, and of limestone and sandstone quarried from nearby bluffs. A second contractor, James Morrison of Porter’s Grove, finished the work in 1845. When Wisconsin became a state in 1848, this building proved inadequate, so the damp and drafty territorial capitol was replaced with a new building (DA20).

Capitol Square became Madison’s most prominent address. Grace Episcopal Church (DA21) completed its sandstone building in 1858. Madison’s first city hall, built on the north side of the square that same year, and the federal post office were all clad in local stone, as were buildings on College Hill. Banks and office blocks, taverns, and hotels ringed the rest of the square, most built of local sandstone, limestone, or pink-tinged blond brick fired in local kilns. The railroad arrived in 1857, bringing cream brick from Milwaukee and the Rock River valley. Buildings at that time were mostly Italianate in style and built in brick trimmed with local limestone.

Along a high ridge on Lake Mendota’s south shore, mansions stretched the length of Langdon Street to the foot of the university. On nearby Mansion Hill, the Victorian mansions of Madison’s elite enjoyed views of Lake Mendota and the Capitol. Another wealthy neighborhood arose on a similar ridge overlooking Lake Monona’s north shore. More modest houses stretched east toward Sherman Avenue, hugging the hilly contours above the swampy lowland lying between the ridges.

Madison industry prospered briefly on the south shore of Lake Mendota, where the Hausmann family malt house, sawmill, and icehouses filled marshy flats along the Catfish (now Yahara) River, until residential development claimed the Mendota lakeshore. Material dredged from the lake, slag and fly ash from foundries, and garbage filled the swampy, central isthmus. Industry clustered along rail lines running through this low land. As the industrial corridor grew, Madison factories manufactured printing presses, plows, and harvesting equipment, supporting workers who settled on this reclaimed marshland. The resulting development pattern with wealthy citizens along the lake ridges, working classes on the east side, and university and professional employees on the west side persisted through the twentieth century. A trolley network organized in the 1870s served isthmus neighborhoods stretching two miles east and west of the capitol. Madison organized its public water system, sewage treatment plant, and electrical utilities first in the 1880s.

Madison’s elite residents constantly battled industrial development, beginning with a ban on slaughterhouses in the 1850s, thus ensuring the dominance of university and government institutions. When a cooperative slaughterhouse on Madison’s outskirts had financial troubles, meatpacker Oscar Mayer of Chicago purchased the abattoir in 1916 and created one of Madison’s longest-lived and largest private enterprises. The French Carbon Battery Company (Rayovac since the 1930s) opened its Winnebago Street factory in 1906, becoming the third-largest battery maker in the nation.

Early open space was provided by cemeteries, seen as memorial parks. The city established Forest Hill Cemetery in 1857, two miles west of the downtown. There the graves of 270 Union veterans lie adjacent to another plot called Confederate Rest, marking the graves of 137 Southern prisoners-of-war who died at Madison’s Camp Randall and were buried in spring 1862. In the late 1890s Madison civic leaders proposed a series of pleasure drives linking parks along Madison’s undeveloped lakeshores. The Park and Pleasure Drive Association acquired parkland and pursued a vigorous campaign to fill in Madison’s extensive wetlands to improve health conditions, creating shoreline parks on lakes Mendota, Monona, and Wingra. They hired Chicago landscape architect O. C. Simonds to design Tenney Park (DA49) and the Yahara River parkway running south of the Lake Mendota outlet. Simonds also designed Brittingham Park on Lake Monona, Vilas Park (see DA33) on Lake Wingra, and the Nakoma neighborhood (DA37) in 1911. The University of Wisconsin hired Paul P. Cret to design its campus plan in 1908, establishing the general campus setting and appearance standards that persisted until the 1980s. Planner and landscape architect John Nolen’s report of 1911 spurred efforts to turn Madison’s lakeshores from industrial sites and rubbish heaps into recreational landscapes. By 1925, the Park and Pleasure Drive Association had developed long stretches of public shoreline from Olbrich Park on the east to Olin Park on the southwest.

Great Depression–era work relief projects changed the character of Madison parks. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built limestone shelters and paths and made improvements at Hoyt and Westmoreland parks. Influenced by the conservation work of Aldo Leopold, the university purchased several farms south of Lake Wingra to create an arboretum. Between 1935 and 1941, the CCC stationed at the arboretum established wetlands, prairie, oak savannah, and southern and northern forest communities mirroring Wisconsin’s native plant populations. The arboretum has the world’s first restored prairie, and its horticultural collections include trees and shrubs of the world. By 2000, Madison had a combination of two hundred parks, trails, nature preserves, and public golf courses on 5,700 acres within the city limits.

A fire in January 1904 destroyed Wisconsin’s second capitol. A progressive legislature authorized replacement of the charred remains with a new structure commensurate with the sweeping social and political innovations begun by Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state’s governor and later senator. Work began in 1906 on the Beaux-Arts classical capitol (DA20).

John Nolen’s 1911 plan for a grand governmental complex centered on the Capitol Square recommended capping building height on the Square to preserve a vista of the capitol. A few years after the construction of the eight-story Gay Building in 1915, legislators passed a law limiting building height to preserve that view. Builders sued, and while the case was tied up in court until 1923, the Lorraine and Belmont hotels rose as high as the capitol’s drum. The Art Deco Tenney Building (1928–1929, Law, Law and Potter; 110 E. Main Street); the Inn on the Park (1961; 22 S. Carroll Street); Wisconsin Veterans Museum (1993; 30 W. Mifflin Street); and the US Bank (1973, Alvan Small and Lew F. Porter; 1 S. Pinckney Street) joined other tall buildings on the Square. During Madison’s 1990s building boom, several new ten-story buildings rose to ring the Capitol Square, providing office space and condominiums.

Although the city resisted vertical growth, it spread into surrounding towns, primarily driven by the growth of the university. The rise of Wisconsin’s dairy industry likewise triggered expansion of the agriculture campus west from Observatory Hill. As the university grew, the city annexed property and stretched its sewage and water systems and trolley lines to new west side neighborhoods. University Heights, Madison’s first suburb, attracted progressive-thinking faculty, who built houses designed by Louis Sullivan (DA31), Frank Lloyd Wright (DA30), and George Maher (see DA29) in addition to local architects who worked in the Prairie Style.

Although noted architects built houses for Madison’s intellectual elite, university staff and state government employees moved into more modest bungalows in the Vilas neighborhood south of University Heights. Cora Tuttle (DA32) and other Craftsman-inspired designers and builders offered moderate-cost housing at the lower end of streets where well-to-do merchants and shop supervisors lived in larger homes. However, not all developments succeeded. The UW Arboretum features the “Lost City Forest,” the overgrown site of an unsuccessful 1906 housing development built on unstable marshland.

Annexation followed as development pushed west in the 1910s, and new neighborhoods sprang up outside city limits. The Nakoma neighborhood (DA37) erected by the Madison Realty Company enforced restrictive covenants that excluded multifamily and commercial buildings, limited building height, and created minimum building setbacks. Like many other suburbs of the time, racial covenants also appeared on property deeds, prohibiting Jews and African Americans from owning property.

In 1934, University of Wisconsin sociologists published the Madison Community,which documented a city divided into two economic zones on its east and west sides. Most Madisonians (57 percent) were factory workers or skilled tradesmen, living mostly on the isthmus, the east side. The remaining inhabitants were professionals (13 percent) or in transportation (10 percent), clerical positions (8 percent), domestic services (7 percent), or public services (3 percent). The survey encouraged city leaders to involve business, governmental, and public utility representatives in planning to improve city organization and delivery of services. The Madison Communitybecame the foundation for the Comprehensive Plan of Madison, Wisconsin and Environsof 1938, authored by Madison planner Ladislas Segoe, whose landmark book Local Planning Administration (1941) became the standard text for planning professionals. Segoe’s two-volume study envisioned new land-use patterns for farmland surrounding Madison. It proposed expansive residential and commercial development joined by a system of larger highways using existing county roads. Segoe projected Madison’s long-term growth stretching several miles east and west beyond its 1938 borders. World War II halted development, but during the war many local developers purchased parcels in the path of Segoe’s blueprint, speculating on future development and ensuring his vision of postwar Madison.

State government and the university sparked further postwar growth, as did the credit union (CUNA), insurance industries (American Family), and other industry. The university’s continued growth and demand for land following the GI Bill–fueled student population expansion led to razing the Greenbush neighborhood, displacing much of Madison’s Italian, Jewish, and African American population. The city used the Housing Act of 1954 to remove “blight,” creating space for public housing projects and hospital expansion. New university buildings and facilities followed over the next forty years.

Madison’s reputation as a radical town, earned during anti–Vietnam War demonstrations between 1966 and 1972, accelerated change in many central city neighborhoods. Where working-class families once lived in small homes and three-floor flats, students soon reigned as the dominant social class. In the mid-1960s, the university relaxed rules requiring students to live on campus, and the city in turn restricted zoning to prevent unrelated occupants living in residential neighborhoods. The result was Madison’s population decrease in the 1970s as families displaced by urban renewal and a migrant student population built new ranch houses and split-levels on the north and southwest sides and in growing suburban enclaves. The growth of a commuter class was generated in part by Segoe’s 1938 plan that paired one-way arteries into and out of the city, enabling easy access from Madison’s growing suburbs.

City administrators battled federal highway planners in the 1950s to prevent the interstate highway’s intrusion through Madison’s isthmus along the rail corridors. Instead, I-90 detoured east of the city, connecting with the South Beltline Highway (WI 18–151/U.S.12–14), E. Washington Avenue (WI 151), and Stoughton Road (U.S. 51) as corridors into the central city. The South Beltline and I-90 connected residents to East Towne and West Towne shopping malls, which were completed in 1976.

With growth booming at Madison’s fringes and a central city in flux, a student protestor and alderman, Paul Soglin, was elected mayor in 1973, bringing a vision of downtown redevelopment to Madison. State Street’s pedestrian mall was created during his third mayoral term, capitalizing on the proximity of government and university established in Doty’s original plan. Soglin’s approach balanced property annexation in neighboring towns that resisted Madison’s planning efforts with negotiating permanent borders with cities and villages that shared his vision. During his tenure, Madison’s Capitol Square lost its status as the central shopping district to malls at the city’s edges. Street-level retail abandoned the square, making way for professional office space. In 1980, Madison converted State Street’s Capitol Theater, a vaudeville and movie palace built in 1928, into the Civic Center, with performance spaces and an art museum. In 2006, it was dwarfed by the Overture Center for the Arts (DA25).

The early twenty-first century brought more change, for good or ill. Persistent supporters of Frank Lloyd Wright realized his sixty-year-old plan for a civic center (Monona Terrace, DA22) on Lake Monona, adapted as a community and convention center in 1998. Historic preservation brought urban homesteaders into the isthmus, creating a renaissance in downtown living that has spurred a condominium boom. Madison eased restrictions on high-rise residential and office space downtown, permitting tall buildings to form Madison’s central skyline. Longstanding objections to blocking views of the capitol were dropped in favor of higher property taxes and real estate values.

Writing Credits

Marsha Weisiger et al.

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