Madison seems to have been especially fire-prone in the late 19th Century, which is not surprising, since they lacked modern, high-tech firefighting equipment. In 1883 the predecessor of historic Science Hall was gutted by fire despite repeated warnings that it was a firetrap waiting for a spark to set it off.
The red brick Science Hall that was built to replace the earlier structure consumed by fire has been a campus landmark for 120 years this year. As you can see, little has changed since this 1915 photo from vfm4's 1915, Madison, Wisconsin Set. It's a special building, and although most Madisonians have seen it forever, they don't know how special it is. It not only provides a footnote to the career of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his brief tenure as a student at the University of Wisconsin, but inside this shambling red pile lurks the heart of a modern skyscraper. Science Hall is the oldest existing building in the country to use structural steel in significant amounts. A 1974 Wisconsin Engineer article tells more.
Science Hall is more than just a red brick monstrosity at the bottom of Bascom Hill. It is a structural marvel and the oldest existing building in the world to use structural steel in significant amounts.Once, Science Hall actually held all the science departments on campus. They have since spread to all the far-flung corners of the large Madison campus.
Completed in 1887, Science Hall was meant to last a long time. An original Science Hall, standing in the same spot as the present one, was completely destroyed by fire several years before, disrupting the university so much that it was feared that it would have to shut down.
Housing all sciences except pharmacy, Science Hall was the main building on campus. Yet in 1883, when Allen D. Conover, engineering professor, warned the Board of Regents that it was falling apart, nothing was done about it. Shortly after, flames demolished the structure.
The Madison fire department considered the alarm a prank, and didn't get there until it was too late. Students were unable to use the building's fire equipment, which was locked up to prevent vandalism. Along with the building, the $10,000 Lapham library, the university's art collection, and geological specimens, including the bones of General Sherman's horse were destroyed.
Students were urged not to transfer, and classes were held temporarily in the library, (now Music Hall), and North Hall, then a men's dormitory. Meanwhile, plans were brewing to construct a new, fireproof Science Hall. As usual, the university was low on funds. In addition to $41,000 coming from insurance on the old building, the university got $150,000 from the legislature. But this still was not enough.
Since all bids were too high, building started without a constructor. Civil Engineering professor Conover was appointed constructing supervisor. He was aided by Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked as a part time student assistant.
Only the geography Department remains. Perhaps it was thought that since the continents that provide the department's subject matter change but slowly, the same consideration should apply to the department's building. The department's website has an interesting History of Science Hall, which at one point flirts with dressing up the building's past in mystery and hints of the supernatural.
Both an architectural and educational edifice, Science Hall also is tied to the mysterious. Much of this part of its reputation results from its castle-like appearance and its link to the campus system of underground utility tunnels, but the former presence of the Department of Anatomy contributes greatly to the building’s mystique. Over the last twenty years, wandering graduate students have exhumed from dusty and forgotten corners of the attics a set of leg bones of a “tall man” and an embalmed human foot. Samuel Rogers set his mystery novel Don’t Look Behind You in Science Hall, as did authors for First Comics’ The Phantom of Bascom Hill. Bats regularly fly its vaulted hallways...Incidentally, if you'd like to see more of the evolution of the University of Wisconsin campus as a whole, the Geography Department's website conveniently provides an online series of Historic UW-Madison Campus Visitor's Maps, 1937-2006. They're a real treat to page through.
Think of this richness as you explore Science Hall--a National Historic Landmark--look at the plaque just above the sidewalk on the street. Admire the building’s towered grandeur from down Langdon Street. Walk toward the structure, and notice the magnificence of style--the turrets and dormers, the arches and raised brick, the imposing roof. As you climb toward the arched entrance, look for the neat blocks of rhyolite framing the basement, the massive unfinished blocks bordering the stairs, and the polished columns beside the wooden doors. Enter the building, and read, before passing through the inner doors, the plaque commemorating the study of geology in Science Hall.