Wisconsin Historical Society
James Doty's first plat map for Madison.
The past matters because the past lives. Land-use and development decisions made generations ago (some before the city even existed) have set Madison's present reality, just as actions taken today will define its future.
Broad historical forces ' economic conditions, commercial and technological developments, national events ' certainly shape a city. But its particular development is largely the construct of individuals, electorates and movements. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 'Biography is the only true history.'
Every so often, on no discernible timetable, cities come to turning points, making decisions whose impact is felt for generations. These take many forms and include times when the choice made is not to act. It's important that we understand these pivotal moments, because those who don't remember the past...won't understand the irony when it repeats.
Here, then, are some of the turning points from Madison's formative years.
A Botched Beginning
Several of Madison's most visible shortcomings, and its greatest challenge in downtown development, date to the very first land-use actions ' the inadequate plat maps filed by founder James Duane Doty in 1836.
Doty, instrumental in the creation of the Wisconsin Territory, already owned most of the modern isthmus when he used means both fair and foul to get territorial delegates to locate the state Capitol there. Too bad he wasn't as good a planner as promoter.
Along with some misleading puffery and outright errors, Doty's plat had fundamental flaws ' shortcomings cited by John Nolen more than 70 years later, and still felt today.
The plat's greatest failure was its disregard for its stunning isthmus setting and other natural wonders, limiting public access to the waterfront and providing no public parklands other than the Capitol grounds.
Doty also failed to properly complete the axial streets. Other than State Street, which had a proper terminus in College Hill, their design ranged from mediocre to harmful. South Hamilton sliced a residential block in two before its abrupt end, while its northern terminus was at the mouth of a canal. The end of that canal, just east of King Street, was even worse; that's where Doty thought a mill should go ' through deep rock, only four blocks from the Capitol.
It would be left to Leonard Farwell, more than a decade later, to locate the mill where the river already was. But because of Doty's design, industrial uses were prominent on Lake Mendota until the late 1920s, and continue even now on Lake Monona.
At least Doty did correct in the official plat one bewildering element from his preliminary plat ' removing the proposed railroad right-of-way in the middle of East Washington Avenue, which would have brought tracks directly onto the Capitol Square.
Leading the UW to Greatness
John Bascom, president of the University of Wisconsin from 1874 to 1887, was the first great leader of the city's most important institution. He hired parks impresario John Olin to teach rhetoric and oratory, inspired Robert La Follette and Charles Van Hise, and led the successful prohibition prosecutions of 1884. Too bad the regents ran him out of town.
In addition to his zealous, even strident, advocacy of prohibition, Bascom used his presidency to champion coeducation, women's suffrage and the right of workers to unionize and strike. He also brought extensive experience and great aptitude as a teacher, was a prolific and profound author and had the requisite executive skills to administer the growing university.
Bascom was the first UW president to have a lasting national impact. In his Sunday seminars at Assembly Hall and in baccalaureate addresses, Bascom stated an early version of the Wisconsin Idea of university service that would become trademarks of university President Van Hise and Gov. (later Senator) La Follette, friends in the Class of 1879.
But Bascom battled over campus administration with several powerful regents, most critically with 'Boss' Elisha Keyes, the mayor both before and during Bascom's term and the Republican postmaster from Lincoln to Roosevelt. Bascom thought Keyes a corrupt bully and tried to block his appointment in 1877. He failed, and the two began a running struggle over control of the university's business affairs.
In 1884, Keyes unleashed an assault on Bascom's administration, which led to Bascom being forced out. As he left, Bascom published an extraordinary 5,000-word screed that denounced the Board of Regents for their 'slovenly, self-seeking political ways.' He warned that because of the regents' gross mismanagement, Wisconsinites were 'in danger of paying the price of a first-class University and securing a second-class one.'
Subsequent threats to the university have come not from internal disputes, but from the economic and political power of state government.
Parks and Pleasure
No group outside government or the university has meant more to the city than the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, which in just a few years permanently transformed the city on both the physical and metaphysical planes. And it all happened because the carriage set wanted a weekend drive in the country. Some highlights:
Oct. 15, 1892: Initiated by John Olin, Bascom's prohibitionist attorney, the Lake Mendota Pleasure Drive Association opens Willow Drive by University Bay, providing access to 150 acres that publisher George Raymer had made public on Eagle Heights.
July 10, 1894: Olin incorporates the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, with 26 charter members paying $25 dues. After two years landscaping the west-side Lake Mendota Drive, Olin sets out to construct Farwell Drive to Governor's Island. The city gives some money, and Sherman Avenue residents kick in twice as much. Halle Steensland gives an easement, and Farwell Drive opens in 1897.
July 14, 1899: The city council meets attorney Daniel K. Tenney's challenge grant for a lakeshore park at the Lake Mendota head of the Yahara River, which it names in his honor. Tenney, Olin's bitter foe in the prohibition battles 15 years prior, helps change the focus of the Parks and Pleasure Drive Association from carriageways to parkland. For the next 30 years, the group would serve as Madison's unofficial parks department.
1903-1906: Through Olin's skill and Sen. William Vilas' power, the association undertakes the Yahara River Parkway, capped by an impressive stone bridge (replaced in 2006), which Ald. Steensland donates to mark his half-century in Madison. Private donations outpace public support by about five-to-one.
April 25,1904: Former U.S. Senator and Interior Secretary William F. Vilas buys and donates a 25-acre parcel by Lake Wingra for public parkland. All he asks is that the land be improved, the creek dredged, a pleasure drive built behind the Edgewood campus ' and that the park be named in honor of his late son, Henry. All these things ' and more ' come to be.
1904-1910: With a series of challenge grants, lumberman Thomas E. Brittingham transforms the shacks and swamps known as the Triangle into Brittingham Park, along with a boulevard to South Madison (today's West Shore Drive), a boathouse and bathhouse, all bearing his name.
Nolen Makes a Model
No document since its charter has meant more to Madison than John Nolen's Madison: A Model City. It would transform the city, and get Nolen fired.
At the urging of John Olin, Madison gave the Harvard-based Nolen a three-year contract as its part-time landscape architect in March 1908, supplemented by state and university contracts. But the two men had more in mind than just good park design; their goal was to remake Madison, which Nolen said needed 'radical and far-reaching improvements.'
In December 1909, Nolen catalogued the city's woes. Haphazard growth had already damaged the city and was threatening its future. State Street was a mess. The railroads were dangerous and disruptive. Children lacked playgrounds. The lakefront was being wasted. The city needed a comprehensive plan, and Nolen was commissioned to prepare one.
Combining established City Beautiful design concepts with the emerging City Functional ideals, a draft of Nolen's 17-point plan was released in the fall of 1910.
But by then the thrill was gone. The Wisconsin State Journal, which had given both of Nolen's appointments front-page coverage, relegated news of the 'Great Plan for Future Madison' to page two, in a story only slightly longer than an account of the annual business meeting of the Majestic vaudeville house.
Meanwhile, anti-planning backlash was building. In February 1911, after Nolen's scathing analysis and visionary recommendations were made public, the city council canceled Nolen's contract. Prophets apparently have no honor in their clients' hometown, either.
Despite Nolen's ignominious treatment, almost every item in his ambitious plan prevailed over time. These included protection of the Capitol view, designation of Monona Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) as the civic center for public buildings, creation and improvement of Law Park, improvements to State Street, enhancement of public access to the lakes, enactment of a zoning code, strategies for affordable housing, and improvements to city budgeting practices.
Voters Reject Commission Government
The very nature of Madison government was at stake when progressives used the Referendum Act of 1911 to schedule a binding vote on abolishing the weak mayor/strong council system and instituting government by three full-time commissioners.
As with some other Progressive Era initiatives, the campaign split the city along class and cultural lines. Upper-class reformers, led by John Olin, Mayor Joseph Schubert and Wisconsin State Journal editor Richard Lloyd Jones, championed the change, which was adopted in Eau Claire, Appleton and Superior; German Americans and the working class were largely opposed.
Opting for a government that was more personal than professional, and more friendly than efficient, voters on Jan. 30, 1912, rejected the commission system by a 55%-45% vote.
In 1946, voters decided that the city should at least have an executive with expertise, and abolished the office of mayor in favor of an appointed city manager, with policy and oversight from a seven-member council. But Madisonians soon missed politics as usual, and reverted to the mayor/council system in 1950. This is the system, for better or worse, that remains in place today.
Transit Trolley Troubles
In the 1920s, Madison voters had two chances to municipalize mass transit, and took neither, a failure that impeded progress for five decades.
The streetcar system reached its peak in 1919, when the Oscar Mayer company paid for an extension to its packing plant in Blooming Grove. For years, the Madison Railway Company had been providing mediocre service and increasing fares, with little hope for improvement.
A city investigation revealed that the company's finances were so shaky it could not even maintain existing tracks properly, let alone undertake expansion into the new western suburbs. That didn't stop owner F.W. Montgomery and his sons from profiting handsomely on their investment.
In February 1920, the city council created a committee to look into municipal ownership, a move strongly supported by the newspapers. That year's mayoral primary became an early test; contender Frank C. Blied, a printing company owner, aggressively supported the proposal.
'This city has been run too long by financial parasites,' Blied said, citing the city's success in operating its municipal waterworks to support public ownership of such an enterprise. He garnered 44% of the vote in a three-way race (the incumbent finished last), and the council put a referendum on municipal ownership on the general election ballot in early April.
But doubts grew as new facts emerged about the Madison Railway Company's watered assets and weakened condition. There were also questions about the long-term future of the streetcars themselves. The first bus line from Madison to Middleton started service that year, and many thought the speed and flexibility of buses would soon make fixed-route streetcars obsolete.
After a brief but intense campaign, Blied and municipal ownership were both defeated, each getting about 40% of the vote.
But the trend of higher fares and diminishing service continued, and in February 1928 the council scheduled another referendum on municipal ownership. A few weeks before the vote, Montgomery and his sons pleaded guilty to filing false financial statements with the Railroad Commission.
Even so, the referendum that April failed. Madison Railway began bus service in March 1925 and shut down its electric trolley line in February 1935. Madison's transit service would remain in private hands, with all of the attendant deficiencies, until 1970, when the city finally purchased the bus system.
Johnson Street City Hall Spiked
Mayor I. Milo Kittleson single-handedly saved Madison from one of its worst planning decisions ' and enabled another three decades of controversy ' when he vetoed the purchase of three lots on West Johnson Street for a city hall in 1924.
The city started trying to replace the 1858 city hall on the west corner of Wisconsin and Mifflin streets as early as 1912, when voters approved a $100,000 bond issue. Finally, misfortune brought opportunity when the back end of the historic Hausmann brewery at State and Gorham streets was destroyed in a $100,000 fire during a blizzard on March 19, 1923. The following January, the council voted to buy three lots fronting on Johnson Street, near the corner of Broom Street, for considerably more than their assessed value.
Mayor Kittleson did not approve, telling the council in his veto message that its actions had caused 'storms of protest and objections.' He noted that the city was developing the Breese Stevens athletic field, a downtown block for a school and playground, and the Nine Springs tract for a new sewage disposal plant. It knew it needed to fund a gymnasium/auditorium for East High, a new junior-senior high school for the south and west sides, a new quarantine hospital and an extension of University Avenue. Kittleson asked, 'Is it not time we begin to refrain from making unnecessary expenditures and purchases?'
The State Street Realty Company claimed the site it was trying to sell was 'in harmony' with John Nolen's comprehensive plan. But John Olin ' the man who brought Nolen to Madison ' applauded the mayor's veto, which was sustained.
The fight to site a new city hall did not end until approval of the City-County Building in 1953, and its opening in 1957.
Eight decades after Kittleson's veto, the Johnson Street property is being put to a historically appropriate purpose ' as the site of a brewpub.
Two Roads Not Taken
In the early 1920s, when traffic on University Avenue went both ways and State Street had growing traffic congestion, Plan Commission consultant Harland Bartholomew urged the city to connect University Avenue from the bend at Gorham Street all the way to West Washington Avenue, thus taking eastbound traffic off State Street.
John Olin championed the cause, and mayors Milo Kittleson and Albert Schmedeman advocated it in their annual messages. For several years, it was considered an even higher priority than a civic auditorium or a new city hall. Most aldermen supported construction, and put a $285,000 bond issue to start purchasing property on the April 1926 ballot.
But in a sharp and unexpected rebuke to the experts and the elite, the people overwhelmingly rejected the referendum. In so doing, they lived with traffic jams for a few more decades, but saved these downtown blocks for several hundred units of housing, a large city parking ramp, a grocery, and the headquarters for Alliant Energy and the phone company.
Bartholomew was also behind another visionary traffic plan that came to naught.
In 1922, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad ran 17 freight trains ' each containing 50 to 75 cars ' through Madison each day. With another 20 or so passenger trains also coming through the west-side depot on West Washington Avenue, the railroad blocked travel to and from the southwest and south Madison several times an hour for much of the day.
Bartholomew's eye-popping solution was to build a grade separation on six raised tracks and a reconstructed West Washington 'subway' with enough clearance for a standard streetcar. Bartholomew's plan, or parts of it, would be a central issue in city business and politics for 30 years, as the city tried to get the railroad to relocate its roundhouse or make a financial contribution toward the grade separation. But the railroad, led by Madison native Leo Crowley ' a legendary Roosevelt-era administrator and Catholic philanthropist ' refused to do either.
The eventual decline in railroad travel and shipping made these elevated tracks unnecessary, and Bartholomew's proposed scheme died. But his design standards live on in the architectural style used for the office buildings that finally replaced the roundhouse in the 1980s.
Adapted from Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Volume I, 1856-1931, copyright 2006, University of Wisconsin Press.