Saturday, July 28, 2007

Boats still come to Olin Park, but they look a bit different from those in 1915, when it was Monona Park

Olin-Turville park
Olin Park, Madison, Wisconsin has been a recreational center for Madisonians and visitors to Madison for well over a century. It used to be known as Monona Park, but was named Olin Park in 1923 after the man who spearheaded the campaign to save it from development.

Only the boats and the clothes look different in this 1915 photo from vfm4's 1915, Madison, Wisconsin Set.

The site of today's Olin Park was a major Midwestern center of the Chautauqua movement, which played such an important part in late 19th century American history and education. The Madison Chautauqua was known as the Monona Lake Assembly, and they built this building for their meetings. The Olin Park Pavilion was built 1884 and still stands, one of Madison's historic buildings. It was recently renovated and is a popular local site for weddings, picnics and other events.

Olin Park is directly across Lake Monona from the downtown isthmus and the State Capitol, and it provides a great view of the entire skyline. here's how it looked this morning, when a brisk wind pulled a paraskier aacross the lake in front of the scenic backdrop.

This is part of a series of posts. Click on the "Madison 1915" tag for the others. To go directly to the first post in the series click here.

Thinking about the Saturday weather map: Giant spoon threatens Eastern seaboard!

I just had to capture this weather formation from today's Times before it disappeared. The little wavy lines trace areas of cloud cover, but I don't know -- what's with that giant spoon? Where did it come from? Is the East Coast just the rim of a huge cup of coffee with lots of cream? What if somebody starts stirring? Look out, Florida.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Searching for the past in the fog of the present

Foggy Night on the Square
Time blurs in the fog. In the right setting, modern details drop away, and you could be walking in the same place 100 years ago or more. Old photographs also bring the past closer. You've probably had the experience of looking at an old photo and thinking that if you just concentrated a bit more and really reached out with your imagination, you could walk right into the photograph. In novelist Jack Finney's 1970 classic Time and Again -- part science fiction, part history -- this nearly universal sensation of temporal displacement was transformed into a method of literally traveling in time.

Most of us travel in time vicariously, not literally, and old photos and postcards like vfm4's Madison 1915 set are our time machine. This is the cover of the postcard folder that her grandfather mailed back to Holland from Madison. As you can see, the Capitol still looks much the same, aside from the modern version's dome being lost in the fog. The trees are much older these days, and taller. Some are now being cut down to be replaced with younger trees.

This was the fourth Wisconsin State Capitol, the third one on this site (in fact, it wasn't quite finished when the postcard folder was made -- maybe that's why the picture on the cover was cropped so vertically -- they would have still been working on the side wings). Check out these fascinating photos of what came before at the Wisconsin Historical Society website. There are thumbnails and links to more than 100 photos, some of them quite extraordinary.

Reflecting Madison's changing Capitol Square

The Tenney Building was completed not long after the 1929 stock market crash. The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill First Wisconsin Plaza (now US Bank) opened in 1974. They are reflected in the windows of 33 E. Main, part of the Urban Land Interests Block 89 development, completed this year (and not quite finished when the photo was taken). Each was the most significant office building of its time on Madison's Capitol Square.

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.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nothing lasts forever -- especially in Madison

Doorway to Nowhere
Modern buildings are almost as mortal as their architects, and some are more mortal than others. Nobody is planning to tear down the Woolworth Building in New York. No one would dare demolish the U.S. Supreme Court Building. These are classics by architect Cass Gilbert, 1859-1934.

This arch is all that remains of a minor Gilbert classic, Madison Central High School, pictured in vfm4's 1915 postcard on the right. The school closed in 1969, and in 1986 it was blithely torn down to put up a parking lot. The arch was allowed to stay as a means of assuaging local preservationists, Central alumni and the occasional fan of Cass Gilbert -- an architect in the Beaux Arts tradition who was eclipsed by modernism but is now recognized as a groundbreaking American architect. Taking down the building was a tragic act of cultural vandalism in a city that all too often fails to value its treasures (see the Humanities Building controversy).

There's a nice line in Wikipedia about Gilbert's design philosophy that seems especially appropriate for the architect of a high school:
His public buildings in the Beaux Arts style reflect the optimistic American sense that the nation was the heir of Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanism.
Not exactly the world of George W. Bush, but there you are.

One of these days the demise of Cass Gilbert's presence in Madison is likely to be complete. The arch was almost torn down five years ago to make way for a new Madison Children's Museum. That didn't happen, but mainly because the Children's Museum found another location. What officials said at the time, as quoted in the Capital Times, was not encouraging.
The carved elements at the top of the arch could be preserved and incorporated into the new museum, he said. But because the brick is so deteriorated, the arch would fall apart if disturbed.
If it's that fragile, it's hard to imagine anybody investing much to curb the deterioration (which, as commenters noted at the other view I posted on Flickr, seems to be advancing rapidly). But, hey, that's no tragedy. (In the view of one city preservation planner, anyhow.)
But Katherine Rankin, city preservation planner, said it wouldn't be that big of a loss.

"It's a pleasant little feature. But keeping such a small remnant of a historic building isn't good preservation. I wouldn't be too sad to see it go," Rankin said.
In another context, Rankin might have a point. But in a city that knocks down its landmarks as casually as Madison does, her remarks could just as well be seen as a symptom of the problem, rather than the solution.

Calico cat with interesting GPS coordinates

Taliesin Calico Cat
Consider this a belated post for Pi Approximation Day, July 22 (22/7 in the European date convention). It's about one of those factoids that a conscientious photographer and blogger is duty-bound to pass on to his readers when he stumbles upon it. I was mapping some Taliesin photos I was putting in my new Frank Lloyd Wright set on Flickr -- including this calico cat, which posed so fetchingly, with an innate sense of great design, against a matching background at Wright's hillside home and studio last fall.

I happened to notice that the GPS coordinates of where I placed my cursor on the Taliesin grounds include a five-place decimal expansion of pi in the number indicating latitude: 43.14153, -90.07091.

Could this account for the circular figures and design themes in his work, from the Monona Terrace to the Guggenheim, from his furniture to his stained glass windows? Who knows? When it comes to the elusive mathematical entity known as pi, stranger things have been known to happen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

War: The disease, its vector, and its cause

The Peace of the Grave
I've been reading The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the legacy of Vietnam, one of the books recommended by nonfiction blogger and librarian Nonanon in comments on my July 4 post. It's journalist Tom Bissell's account of his father John's service as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, and the trip they took there together many years later. Here's a conversation when they were entering the Citadel in the city of Hue, site of such bloody fighting during the war, that stuck in my mind.
"Do you remember the time you admitted to me that you actualy kind of liked war?"

He winced and put his glasses back on. "Did I say that? I must have been locked and loaded."

"You said that you loved war, you hated war, war scared you, you couldn't get enough of war."

"War," my father said finally, "is an illness caused by youth."
I thought about it for a moment and nodded. And then I thought again. I thought of all the old men like Wolfowitz, Perle and Cheney who led us so heedlessly to war in Iraq, and the terrible toll in lives their folly has been responsible for. No, I thought: War is a disease, but youth is the vector, not the cause. The cause is old men, making one last effort to contol the world and reshape it in their image before they pass from the scene.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Blooming Butterflies at Olbrich Gardens

The air in the Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Botanical Gardens is once again alive with splashes of color, some vibrant, some muted, now that the annual Blooming Butterflies event is under way and continues through August 13. If you've never been there, it's quite a sight. Kenneth Burns dropped by and wrote about it in the Isthmus Daily Page.
Life holds so few pleasures that don't require either special shoes or a Facebook account, but among the truly simple joys are butterflies. They are brilliant and graceful, and the process by which they metamorphose from pupae is magnificent, when you think about it.

Butterflies can be hard to chase down in the wild, though, and that is where Blooming Butterflies comes in. The exhibit at Olbrich Botanical Gardens lets visitors walk amid the orchids and palms of humid Bolz Conservatory and marvel at the creatures as they flutter overhead, feed on blossoms and sun calmly on leaves. Outside the conservatory, you also can view hundreds of butterflies preserved in cases, and even try to spot some in the gardens.
Be sure to bring a camera. You can't miss.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dancers in silver jumpsuits tune up for the Madison Pride Parade along the Southwest Bike Path

There's always something happening on the Southwest Bike Path. We were pedaling along on the final stretch as it approaches Lake Monona when we heard the sound of music up ahead. Drawing closer, we saw the flash of silver jumpsuits dancing in the morning sun. Could it be a dance troupe of gay Ukrainians? Yes, it could. They were tuning up for the Madison Pride Parade, which would soon start to wind its way toward Brittingham Park by way of West Washington.
Some wore shiny silver jumpsuits and danced. Others dressed in drag. A few wore black leather and rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles while still others toted children in wagons. If the spirit of Madison's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community was dampened by a voter-approved ban on gay marriage late last year, it wasn't evident Sunday. Hundreds turned out for the 18th annual Madison Pride Parade that wound its way north of Monona Bay and down West Washington Avenue to Brittingham Park -- converted for the day to Pride Park.


Those who looked for conformity Sunday would have been out of luck. It was a spectacle that included a troupe of primarily Ukrainian nationals dancing and lip-synching aboard a float. Their silver jumpsuits and oversized sunglasses added more flavor to the moves.
Their float actually had a serious point. A sign noted they were demonstrating on behalf of those in countries like Ukraine who could not. But mostly, their silvery moves were bright, joyous and fun. Everything looked a bit drab and dull in comparison as we resumed our trek across the John Nolen causeway to Olin Park.

Former mayor becomes a traffic calming device

Paul Soglin posted this on his blog Sunday:
When I ride my bike down Glenway to the bike trail, I am now a traffic calming device. I do not like it.

On Glenway, as you approach the trail from Mineral Point Road, there are three of those islands designed to narrow the roadway. As a result there is no room for a car to safely pass a bicycle. As you tool along, cars stay on your rear for a distance of close to two blocks.

The driver does have an option. Accelerate quickly, pass, and pull over before the next 'calming device.' Calm my ass.
I know what he means. That stretch is an awful accident waiting to happen. Although I'm fortunate enough to be able to conveniently access the Southwest Bike Past from the yet-to-be calmed Commonwealth Avenue, I know what he means, as I drive up and down Glenway all the time. I always marvel that more people don't get hurt. The calming islands here seem more like a triumph of theory over reality than a practical safety measure.

Not quite as bad as the congested bridge at the entrance of Vilas Park, where pedestrians and bikers walk toward oncoming, one-way traffic that can't see them till the last minute. But almost.

Rephotographing the postcard Madison of long-ago 1915 in the here-and-now summer of 2007

Over the weekend I began rephotographing some of the locations featured in the collection of old postcards (above right) that vfm4's grandfather mailed back to family in Holland from his visit to the U.S. in 1915, which she has posted as a set on Flickr. I'll be continuing to take photos of some of the other locations and blog about them when I find the time. But the photography will probably run ahead of the writing, so probably the best way to keep up-to-date on the series is to check now and then on my Flickr set, "Madison in 1915, Rephotographed in 2007." Click here to go there. You can also get all the related blog posts directly by clicking on the tag, "Madison 1915," below.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Craig Wilson's camera kite watches over Opera in the Park as the sun goes down

Craig Wilson Kite Camera Documents Madison's Opera in the Park
Opera in the Park at Madison's Garner Park last night was simply magical. The hushed crowd, listening intently (so different from Concerts on the Square). The incredible guest artists. The stage glowing ever more brightly against the encroaching darkness. And, overhead, the steadfast, pastel presence of a large blue and white kite, glowing like a jewel in the last rays of the setting sun. That was Craig Wilson's aerial photography kite platform, quietly doing its job, taking it all in.

Craig Wilson is a tinkerer and an artist, whose stunning kite photos document the world from a whole new perspective -- that middle ground between our everyday reality on the ground and the lofty heights where aircraft soar. It's truly a bird's eye view, and it's remarkable.

You can see a set of aerial photos from an earlier Opera in the Park at his Flickr site. And don't miss his website, with the galleries (he has expanded into video, complete with audio from aloft) and page about his amazing book, Hanging by a Thread. And keep an eye out for his kite in the skies above Madison. There's always something magical about something so large and powerful, soaring in bird space and bringing back such delicate visual poetry.