Monday, August 06, 2007

The UW-Madison's Science Hall, in all its red brick glory, is 120 years old this year

Science Hall
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.

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.
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.

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...

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.
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.


George Hesselberg said...

Date: Sunday, October 11, 1992

Byline: George Hesselberg

The only lasting impression made by the new roof on the Science Hall building will be that it is temporary.

Pity, that.

The Science Hall, 104 years young and the anchor of Langdon Street, is getting its ears (and dignity, and aesthetic value) lowered in a roof-replacement project.

Instead of replacing the original slate tiles with slate, which would last another 100, possibly 200 years, the state is putting on shingles expected to be obsolete in 30 years or less.

Workers from the Millen Roofing Co. have been climbing around on the beautiful old building's steep roofs for weeks now, and will be up there until at least Dec. 20.

You won't see these guys heaving old shingles over the side of the roof into Dumpsters, though.

That's because the Millen Roofing Co.

is also the Central States Slate Co., and these workers know they are handling precious material: enough last-forever, quarter-inch-thick slate tile to cover 30,000 square feet. A typical tile measures about 19 inches by 11 inches, so that is about 60,000 square feet of slate. Each tile, weighing more than a pound, is held to the roof by two short iron nails sited less than 2 inches apart.

The tiles are carefully stacked and lowered to the ground, where a worker piles them neatly onto pallets, which are trucked to storage at Millen's.

The old tiles lasted more than 100 years. There is nothing wrong with them. The problem with the roof was the nails were slowly rusting.

The state Building Commission and Thompson administration - which just dropped $28 million on a Department of Administration lavish neon palace - wouldn't let UW-Madison put another 100-year slate roof on for $1 million, instead opting for one $670,000 asphalt shingle roof that will need to be replaced in fewer than 30 years.

The shingles are being nailed to 2-inch by 3-inch boards attached to I-beams. Mark Friedrich, a job foreman, said the only unforeseen event in the roof job so far has been the discovery that a high gable end brick wall, facing Langdon Street, is leaning out about six inches. That will have to be reinforced with stainless steel rods, but it is not considered to be a serious problem.

New terra cotta clay tiles are being used on the ridges and the old copper is being replaced, too. (That old terra cotta came from the Northwestern Terra Cotta company in Chicago.)

Friedrich was not coy about his roofing preference.

``We would have preferred to put a slate roof on this building,'' he said.

``We look at this roof now as a temporary roof.''

John Millen, sounding like a baker describing a cake that was made with margarine instead of butter, said that when his workers were finished, there would not be a single piece of slate left on the Science Hall roof.

He said the slate being removed was ``good stuff.''

``Our hope is that it came from a quarry that is no longer operational,'' he said, explaining the old slate's value to his company.

``That would make it useful out east for restoration projects'' that need to match slate.

Matt Millen, John's brother, is the slate expert in a family that can trace four generations of slate roofing craftsmanship.

The Science Hall slate came in 1886 from a long-closed slate quarry in Monson, Maine, and may have been chosen because the building architects went to Boston to examine buildings that featured that tile, Matt Millen said.

Few slate quarries survived the Great Depression, said Millen, and the Maine slate was well known for its rare combination of smoothness and hardness.

``A good percentage of the stone on the Science Hall is still as good as the day it was put on. Of course we would rather be putting on a slate roof. That is our craft,'' he said.

That's the problem when you are good at what you do and use materials that last: A repeat customer comes along every century or so, and then some cheap relative settles for a temporary job that will be paid for, and paid for again, by descendants not yet born.


Madison Guy said...

George, that's fascinating -- and really sad. Thanks.

vfm4 said...

@George Hesselberg: to me that looks like daylight robbery... why did they have to replace those slates in the first place if there's nothing wrong with them?

but i may have misread you story, and it is not my business anyway...

George Hesselberg said...

As the story notes, the nails that held the slate tiles to the roof were failing. And of course it is your business!