The history of University of Wisconsin-Madison seems readily apparent in buildings like the Red Gym and Memorial Union, in the effigy mounds that are visible on campus or in grand open spaces like Library Mall. But what we can see is only part of the story. Daniel Einstein, program manager of UW's Lakeshore Nature Preserve, loves the places that are hidden and the tales they tell.
"History is not just about the long ago past - it informs everything about our present lives and the possibilities for our future," says Einstein, who works for the university's department of facilities, planning and management. "There is no escaping the past. Our lives today are a consequence of everything that has preceded us."
Einstein has helped develop a cultural landscape plan for the university that looks not only at buildings but at the spaces between buildings and what happened there. It takes into account events that happened and people who lived on what is now the UW-Madison campus long ago.
"What's cool is there was all of this occupation that goes back 12,000 years," Einstein says. "Unless you know how to look for these features, you might not know how to find them in the landscape."
Pieces of hidden history are scattered across campus. They tell of hopes, dreams and failures at a university that constantly reinvents itself. Here's a look at a few stories about what remains but can be overlooked; what was and has virtually disappeared; and what could have been if only the cards had fallen differently.
On Oct. 10, 1916, hundreds of people gathered on Bascom Hill, not for tobogganing or to dance around a maypole, but to watch the dome of the already iconic Bascom Hall burn. An American flag flew above the billowing smoke. Legend says the fire was quenched when the dome collapsed and fell into an attic water tank.
The cistern remains in Bascom's attic, along with the timbers that were charred but not ruined in the blaze. Open a locked door, crawl up a ladder, and you can look inside the tank that's about 20 feet across, 15 feet high and big enough to hold an estimated 35,000 gallons of water.
Einstein, who's spent years searching out places like this, cannot find a clear answer about what the tank was used for. Maybe it collected rainwater for fire suppression, or it could have been water for indoor plumbing.
Climb up one more set of stairs, and you'll find the chair the Bascom custodian sits on to raise and lower the flag on top of the building. The view is from the top of the UW world, the lake on one side, the carillon chiming, the university spread out in 360 degrees.
Another locked door, another set of narrow steps, lead to the Science Hall attic, which was once home to medical school laboratories. Science Hall replaced a building that was destroyed by fire, so it was built to last, with three-foot thick walls, double-wall air pockets and little interior wood. It was the first completely fireproof building on campus, writes Jim Feldman in The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin.
This may be the oldest surviving building in the world that makes use of substantial structural steel. In the attic, you can see how steel used to be cut - by drilling a row of holes, then bending it until it snapped - and put together with bolts at odd angles.
While the gross anatomy lab was on the top floor of Science Hall, the attic was also an anatomy professor's lab. A lab bench remains in place, with old gas or compressed air lines running to it. There's storage and no explanation for labels such as "Head Holders," "Plastic Covers for Sections," "Meat Slicer Extras" and "Height Gauges."
"What happened here?" Einstein wonders. "How was this space used?"
He says this attic, like other attics, is a place where people have through the years stashed stuff that might never be retrieved. Ten years ago, when computer boxes were saved in case the machines had to go back, the attic was stacked with computer boxes. Now there are soil cores and a few of the building's original slate roof tiles.
The view is the treat. Step onto a chair, and there's a bird's eye, million-dollar look down Langdon Street to the Capitol.
Getting out alive
The grilled opening under Science Hall's front stairs on Park Street is not where hearses delivered cadavers for the medical school's anatomy classes. It's a massive air intake that runs to a fan - about 12 feet in diameter and run by belts - that was installed in the early 1900s and is still used to bring fresh air into the building. The mammoth fan creates such a pull that it's hard to even open the door to the mechanical room.
Einstein says the cadavers were delivered to the parking lot behind Science Hall. Feldman writes that the bodies were lowered into the basement and then winched up the north tower to the attic anatomy lab. Rumors of ghosts may come from the bodies left on fire escapes in the winter so they could be sectioned (yes, that's the right verb).
The south tower was once home to a fire-escape slide. That's where retiring geography department heads slid down on their last day, followed by the new chair and a bucket of water.
Buried in effigy
The UW-Madison is home to more effigy mounds than any other university in the world, Einstein says. The main campus landscape includes 16 conical, linear and effigy mounds; the Arboretum, another 22. Some, like the very rare two-tailed water spirit on Observatory Hill, are easily visible with long grass growing on them. Others can be found only if you know where to look.
Of the six mounds on the path to Picnic Point, only one is easily discernable; it's near where the peninsula narrows at the old swimming beach. Another five lie adjacent to the path. Three more obscured mounds can be found on the bluff west of Eagle Heights apartments. Einstein says the UW plans to someday "clear the woody vegetation off these mounds." All in good time.
The sprawling network of tunnels that runs beneath the campus may be the UW-Madison's worst-kept secret. No one is supposed to know about them, but many people do.
In all, there are about 10 miles of tunnels. Some are four-foot-high box-conduit tunnels; some are six-foot-high walkable tunnels. They were built to distribute steam heat from the Charter and Walnut street heating plants to campus. The tunnels also contain electrical, compressed air and technology lines. They're dank and dirty, with insects, maybe cockroaches, possibly rats.
"It's an underground subterranean environment," says John Harrod, university physical plant manager. He explains that the newest tunnels are being installed now near Union Square and from Willow Creek to UW Hospital. The oldest, brick-lined tunnels are from the 1800s and show their age.
Access to the tunnels has become more difficult than ever since the university spent $100,000 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to secure them. Fewer people are finding their way in, Harrod says, adding he has no numbers.
Eighteen years ago, shortly after Harrod took the job, he was visited by an individual known as "Tunnel Bob." He asked for permission to go into the tunnels. It wasn't granted, but Bob still checks in about once a quarter with Harrod and probably still goes in the tunnels.
Bad idea, stresses Harrod, noting that tunnel threats include asbestos, heat, high pressure and high voltage. "Danger-wise, it's not a good place for the untrained person to be," he says. "I don't want somebody hurt. That scares me."
All that remains of Camp Gallistella on the Lake Mendota shore west of Frautschi Point is a water well, footings for piers that jutted into the lake and the latrines. The camp, also known as the Tent Colony, thrived here for 50 years until the Eagle Heights apartments were built in the early 1960s.
The camp was created by a group of ag students in 1912, when they asked to stay along the shore while they attended summer school. It began with 18 wooden platforms on which students could pitch tents or build temporary housing with canvas, tar paper, wooden frames and bug screens.
In the 1930s, when about 200 people spent their summers here, the camp grew to include a constable, postmaster, camp counselors, newsletter, ferry to campus, grocery delivery and diaper service. Male high school teachers finishing their master's degrees often brought their families here, where wives and children could hang out. The only electricity was in the study hall.
Using the land for summer student housing helped mitigate criticism of the university's controversial purchase of George Raymer's farm.
The show must go on
The Bascom Hall Theatre, where famed actor Don Ameche performed when he was a student in the late 1920s, is now walled off. The seating space has been converted into a lecture hall, from which you can still see the theater's elaborate proscenium arch. If you venture into a back hallway, there's an entrance to backstage with its soaring fly loft and catwalks near the ceiling. The theater was finished in 1929 and became University Theatre's first home.
"You can imagine what happened in this space," Einstein says. "One could imagine ghosts in here."
And perhaps outside as well. On the sidewalk in front of Bascom Hall, two small plaques - one marked "SW 1838," the other "WN 1837" - mark the burial site of two men who came to Madison to work on the Capitol. One of the men, Einstein says, was struck by lightning; the other was his friend. Their bones were discovered in the early 1900s, when the university built the Lincoln exedra in front of the building.
Let the sun shine in
For 20 years, sunlight poured into Memorial Union's Great Hall through a 400-square-foot stained glass dome. The dome, which had its glass removed in 1948, has been likened to the "style and complexity of a Tiffany lamp." It was actually inside the building and backlit by skylights.
Paul Broadhead, Wisconsin Union facilities director, says the dome leaked like a sieve. And the acoustics were terrible. But the $70 million Memorial Union renovation includes tentative plans to uncover the dome. Broadhead says it shouldn't be that difficult, even though the glass is gone. Modern acoustical engineering could solve the sound problems.
"If we can make it work in the program, why wouldn't we do it?" asks Broadhead.
What could have been
For better and worse, some big-time campus plans came to naught
A dream deferred…
E.J. Young had grand plans when he bought the B.J. Stevens farm, including Picnic Point, in 1925. It was one of the largest farm deals in the history of Dane County, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, on land already popular for public use, as parkland. Young planned a sprawling private estate on one of the most picturesque spots on Lake Mendota.
Recently unearthed plans drawn by Root and Hollister Landscape Architects show a horse circus (oval track), stables and pasture, formal, informal, vegetable and cutting gardens, squash and tennis courts, a gate lodge and a mansion designed by Frank Riley. The massive gate was built and remains to welcome Picnic Point visitors.
Young and his wife, Alice, renovated the farm house and lived there until 1935 when it burned. A brick walkway still leads from the road (uphill from the entrance gate) to the site of the former house. Young lost a good share of his fortune in the Depression and moved to Shorewood after the fire; his estate was never finished.
Reginald Jackson Jr. had plenty of toys, including a sailboat, sea plane and rambling cottage on what has become Frautschi Point. You can still see remnants of the cottage, boathouse and some of the footings for the track to the sea plane hangar on the point. But the land does not tell the story of a planned breakwater that would have cut across Union Bay and eliminated the marsh.
Called "The Harbor," the breakwater was promoted by Jackson, who wanted a place for him and his friends to park their sea planes. The 1930s plan would also have added boat docks and 100 houses on either side of Lake Mendota Drive and along Union Bay Drive.
Aldo Leopold was not amused.
"University Bay is a moral, rather than a physical issue," he wrote. "If the university expects Wisconsin farmers to heed its advice to be cautious about demolishing marshes, it had better watch what example it sets on its own campus."
Leopold called the university marsh "the sole bit of natural landscape remaining on the campus." If people really thought a place to park boats was an improvement, he seethed, "then we had better spend our money, if we have any, on a new department of esthetic education."
Felled Woods Estates?
The 40-acre patch of land now nicknamed Big Woods, west of Lake Mendota Drive and south of Eagle Heights Drive, was itself once earmarked for housing. According to an early-20th-century plat, owner John Olin proposed 18 lots on this land.
Later, in 1954, a 450-car parking ramp was envisioned on Lake Mendota in front of the hydraulic lab and pump house. The plan, which would have involved filling in part the lake, was controversial. It's likely the limnology lab was built so close to the lake to ensure that no road and parking lot would be possible.
See for yourself
On Saturday, Sept. 27, 24 pm, the UW's Daniel Einstein will lead a historical tour of "lost" building projects on what is now the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. He'll point out had barns, summer cottages and even a sea plane hangar. There were also unfulfilled plans for a horse racetrack (Eagle Heights Gardens), squash courts (Second Point Woods) and a residential neighborhood (Picnic Point). Meet at the Picnic Point stone gate. For more info, call Einstein at 608-265-3417.