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Feldman, Jim (Writer) / The buildings of the University of Wisconsin

Gymnasium and armory,   pp. 75-79

Page 76

Fig. 3. The gym in its
1899 setting. The houses
on the right were re-
moved 1910 for the gym
annex and 1956 for the
.      construction of the
Wisconsin Center, the
old boat house is seen
behind the gym at the
left. [9/2 armory/gym
folder #1 jf-18]
In the late 19th century there was a series of serious civil disorders caused by the rising
resentment of workers and thinkers against the excesses of capitalism. Among the worst of these
were the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886, the Homestead Pennsylvania war in 1892, while the
Wisconsin building was under construction. There was a belief by authorities that armories should be
constructed in urban areas in case of uprisings of this kind. They would serve as assembly areas for
troops and storage for arms. In fact in the 1880s the Wisconsin National Guard was called out to
break strikes and put down insurrections in Milwaukee and in Superior. The nature of the building
intended by the legislature was clearly military. A contemporary writer's description of the First
Regimental Armory in Chicago applies well to the red gym: "the design is to the last degree military,
and cannot fail to impress the passer-by with the full extent of its purpose and the ability to carry it
The plans by local architects Conover and Porter needed to reflect this double purpose of the
building: armory and college gymnasium. They examined many other buildings and plans, and by
December of 1891 had progressed to the point shown in Fig. 1. The design is very similar both in
appearance and function to the Eighth Regimental Armory in New York, which had been featured in
architectural trade papers and in Harpers Weekly.4 The architects argued that because of the size of
the proposed building it could not be built of stone as planned and stay within the budget. With the
agreement of the regents red brick trimmed with sandstone was substituted. By May 14, 1892
Conover and Porter had working drawings ready. The regents building committee opened
contractor's bids on May 31, 1892, but rejected them all. The regents agreed to raise the appropria-
tion for the building from $75,000 to $100,000. On July 25, 1892, the new bids were opened and the
contract awarded to T. C. McCarthy for $97,373. McCarthy was a university favorite who was
already working on Smith Hall and the law building.
Ground was broken the fall of 1892 and by December 2, 1892 the foundation was complete.
In January of 1893 university president Chamberlin was replaced by Charles K. Adams. The new
president insisted on altering the plans for the gym to accommodate large assemblies on the second
floor, which needed to be unbroken by stairwells due to it's intended use as a military drill space.
Adams worked with Conover and Porter to design a 24 X 44 foot annex on the west side of the
building containing stairways. This change added about $7000 to the design, and was approved in

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