In 1959, the city got closer to building Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace than ever before. And then it all fell apart.
Early in the year, newly elected Gov. Gaylord Nelson moved to repeal a 1957 law setting lakeside height limits that effectively prevented construction of Wright's grand design for his hometown.
Joseph W. Jackson, the great economic development activist and former medical clinic administrator who worshiped John Nolen and loathed Frank Lloyd Wright, testified against the measure at a public hearing. A cavalry hero in World War I and intelligence officer in Germany after World War II, Jackson produced an intelligence dossier on Wright that he said proved the architect was either "a communist or communist fellow traveler."
But although Jackson was apparently in close touch with the FBI and American Legion, he was out of touch with Wisconsin government, and Gov. Nelson signed the repeal of the so-called Metzner Law on March 20, 1959.
Thus, nearly five years after Madison voters had approved the project, Monona Terrace was good to go. In anticipation, Wright had prepared a new iteration and submitted a bill of $122,500 for services to date.
Three weeks later, on April 9, Wright died, two months shy of his 92nd birthday. He was borne by a horse-drawn carriage and buried three days later in a private ceremony in Spring Green. Madison Mayor Ivan Nestingen said Monona Terrace could still be built, and in late May the Council approved the project's preliminary plans.
But the city hadn't counted on the continued opposition from Jackson, who immediately filed a taxpayer's lawsuit charging the city with a "gross abuse of discretion" in proceeding with a project he called dangerous and illegal.
The lawsuit was still pending at decade's end. Madison's window of opportunity to build Monona Terrace was closing, not to reopen for another 30 years.
Stu Levitan is a radio host, labor arbitrator and author of Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1 (UW Press, 2006).