Friday, July 27, 2007

This gem by Guess Who was torn down in 1926

In Madison it's been going on for a long, long time --tearing down buildings that we later miss. Often they leave gaping wounds and melancholy voids in the fabric of our community. This boathouse on Lake Mendota was neglected for nearly 20 years, and finally in 1926 neighbors asked the city for permission to demolish the structure, and permission was granted. You've probably already guessed who built it. Yes:
Municipal Boathouse
Lake Mendota at N. Carroll Street

This twin-towered municipal boathouse at the foot of North Carroll Street on Lake Mendota was designed and built in 1893 by a young, unknown, Chicago-based architect named Frank Lloyd Wright, who had won a public competition for the project. The first Wright building to be erected in Madison, the boathouse was built for $4,000 raised by the Madison Improvement Association, one of the several turn-of-the-century groups involved in civic beautification. Upkeep on the boathouse was neglected after the Madison Improvement Association ceased to exist in 1907 and its neighbors, Mrs. Frank G. Brown and Chandler Chapman, asked permission from the city to tear it down in 1926.
Today, of course, this would not happen. Frank Lloyd Wright is an established brand name. We'd do anything to save a building like this today. But the problem is always with buildings, or architects, that are obscure, out of fashion, or otherwise out of favor.

In 1926, Wright was very much out of favor in Madison. He had been shocking the locals for years. News of loose living, arson and even murder at Taliesin scandalized the respectable citizens of Madison. Since 1925 he had been living in sin at Taliesin (because he was separated from Miriam Noel, but not yet divorced) with Olgivana, who later became his third wife, but not before the two of them were arrested in October of 1926 for crossing state lines together in violation of the Mann Act.

He was also 59 years old and appeared to be near the end of a decidedly mixed career. It must have seemed like an easy call. Of course the rundown building had to go. It was an embarrassing reminder of Wright's life, which was as unkempt as the boathouse he had designed. Few Madisonians would have guessed at the time that many of his greatest achievements -- Fallingwater, Johnson Wax, the Guggenheim Museum, among them -- still lay ahead.

The photo and the notes are from Lost Madison, a photo exhibit that the Madison Public Library held in the late nineties, and which lives on as a fascinating Web page, haunted by such names as Turner Hall and Mapleside. It's accompanied by an eloqent plea for preservation.
The urban landscape of Madison looks vastly different today from the way it did when these exhibit photographs were taken. One by one, the buildings succumbed to what succeeding generations defined as "progress." In looking at what we have lost, one inevitably asks "Why?"


Our older buildings are psychologically important reference points in a changing urban environment. These diverse remnants tell us where we came from as a city and as people. They help give Madison its sense of place and identity. And once they are gone, they are gone forever.

"You can't stop progress," we are told, but we can redefine what "progress" is. It need not mean plundering our past for things bigger and better. As we approach the 21st century, we must make room for the preservation of human values which includes a more intelligent stewardship of the history that is written in the building blocks of our cities.
It's great that some of the buildings that have disappeared live on in the library's virtual space -- although it would be even better if they still existed in physical space. "Lost Madison" is well worth an online visit. It's a reminder of how hard it is to rise above the prejudices of our time to make considered judgments about what's worth preserving and what isn't. All the more reason to err on the side of caution.


Anonymous said...

Madison Guy said...

Thanks, Anonymous -- I fixed the broken Lost Madison link in the main post.