Friday, November 02, 2007

The trees in front of the Old Red Gym are pretty, but they really don't make up for what's missing

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The Old Red Gym is one of the best known landmarks of the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. Among other things, it was the place where generations of incoming students stood in long lines to register at the start of each academic year, until registration finally went online. It looks especially picturesque with the late afternoon light of an autumn day filtering through those golden trees between the gym and Lake Mendota. But to long-time Madison residents and members of the university community there will always be something missing -- a void that has existed for some 40 years.

That's the old University Boathouse pictured in this picture at vfm4's 1915, Madison, Wisconsin Flickr set. The boathouse was completed with funding from a student subscription drive in 1893. The tower on the right was the lifesaving station from which rescue boats were dispatched when boaters got in trouble on Lake Mendota. For more than 70 years it served the UW crew as well as recreational needs of the university and, formerly, the community. I was one of them. I used to borrow a friend's boat and winch it down with a block-and-tackle from its overhead storage compartment and go for leisurely paddles on Lake Mendota.

Even for people who never set foot in a boat, the old, weathered wooden structure was a lovely addition to the lakefront. Madison tended to be a bit too quick to tear down historic structures in the sixties. Had it survived until today, it would probably have been renovated as lovingly as the Brittingham Boathouse on Brittingham Bay. Maybe the University would have extended its Lakeshore Preserve to encompass it. But it was not to be. Instead, we have to settle for this web page about the new boat house, along with this link to a PDF file about the old boathouse.

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