Saturday, April 08, 2006

Not exactly paradise, but it wasn't bad — till they paved it over and put up a parking lot.

When Joannie Mitchell started writing "Big Yellow Taxi" in 1967, she must have been channeling the future, in more ways than one. Madison Central High School graduated its last class not long after, and in 1986 the building was razed, the site was paved over and a parking lot took the place of what once had been Madison's only high school. In fact, they even put up a hotel across the street, though it wasn't pink (the Madison Concourse Hotel, shown in the background).

Now the "Central Arch" is all that remains of the school that graduated its first class (from this building, which replaced an earlier one on the same site) in 1909. When it was built, it was one of the more notable buildings in the state, but by the time it closed it was just another under-utilized inner city school in a suburban world. Now the arch tops what seems to be a stairway to nowhere, but is actually a walkway over the parking lot. Kind of seems like a metaphor for life, especially for those of us whose former homerooms now exist only in memory (or as invisible GPS coordinates hovering somewhere above the parked cars).

Here's what it looked like originally (click on the photo to enlarge). The picture is in Nadine's Madison Central High School History blog, a labor of love and a rich and growing resource of information about the school. If you attended Central, or even if you've just wondered about that odd arch above the parking lot a block from the Capitol, check it out. You'll find stories about its history, teachers and alumni — who include, believe it or not, the winners of three Nobel Prize awards in physics. As Nadine notes, Nobel laureates come from all over, but she hasn't heard of a single high school whose graduates picked up three physics awards.
Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Marie Curie are all Nobel Prize laureates in physics. So are two graduates of Madison Central High School. Perhaps there's another high school that can boast its alumni have been awarded not one, not two, but three Nobel Prizes in Physics, but I'm still waiting to hear its name.
Nadine's story about them is here. She doesn't seem to have written yet about one of my favorite alums, Oregon senator Wayne Morse. On August 7, 1964, he became one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. I always liked the idea that this feisty maverick — who grew up in the Robert M. LaFollette era of progressive Wisconsin politics — had attended my high school. I admired his moral stamina in opposing the war (we could have used some Morse clones in 2003). But I never knew until recently how much sheer physical stamina it took for him to get to Central from his family's farm near Verona.
He escaped the one-room schoolhouse that educated most denizens of rural Wisconsin by riding on horseback a 22-mile circuit from the Morse farm to Madison each day.
The man who designed the high school the young horseback commuter attended would soon become one of America's nation's most famous architects. Cass Gilbert won lasting fame as the architect of the first real skyscraper, New York's Woolworth Building, completed in 1913. Nadine has a story about Gilbert with additional links at her other blog, the one about her own class, Madison Central High School Class of 1965. Gilbert went on to design the U.S. Supreme Court Building and several state capitols.

Given Central High School's place in local history and the reputation of its architect, it could have been designated a landmark, but it wasn't. It should come as no surprise that Madison would hardly think twice about tearing it down. After all, this is the city that couldn't bring itself to honor Wisconsin native son Frank Lloyd Wright in his lifetime. Why would we preserve the work of some out-of-town architect who died long ago? And let's face it, parking downtown is hard to find.

1 comment:

Central Historian said...

Hey! Madison Guy -- Just noticed your recent Flickr photos of our alma mater. I did eventually pick up the gauntlet you threw down last year and write a long post about Wayne Morse and his wife, Mildred Downie, both of whom graduated from Madison [Central] High School in 1919. If you haven't already done so, you can read it HERE. I also posted scans of their senior class photos from the 1919 Tychoberahn yearbook, for which they both served as editors. You can see them HERE.

This comment is for those folks who take the initiative to check the link accompanying your Flickr photos and visit this post, but keeping in mind Flickr-Blogger crossover and self-promotion, I think I'll leave a copy on one of the Flickr photos, too.