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Nolen, John, 1869-1937 / Madison : a model city (1911)

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[chapter 1]

  [p. 17]     [p. 18]  

I shall not attempt to define how large or how well organized, politically, a province must be. For my present purpose a county, a state, or even a large section of the country, such as New England, might constitute a province. For me, then, a province shall mean any one part of a national domain, which is, geographically and socially, sufficiently unified to have a true consciousness of its own unity, to feel a pride in its own ideals and customs, and to possess a sense of its distinction from other parts of the country. And by the term "provincialism" I shall mean, first, the tendency of such a province to possess its own customs and ideals; secondly, the totality of these customs and ideals themselves; and thirdly, the love and pride which leads the inhabitants of a province to cherish as their own these traditions, beliefs, and aspirations....

Finally, let the province more and more seek its own adornment. Here I speak of a matter that in all our American communities has been until recently far too much neglected. Local pride ought above all to centre, so far as its material objects are concerned, about the determination to give the surroundings of the community nobility, dignity, beauty. We Americans spend far too much of our early strength and time in our newer communities upon injuring our landscapes, and far too little upon endeavoring to beautify our towns and cities. We have begun to change all that, and while I have no right to speak as an aesthetic judge concerning the growth of the love of the beautiful in our country, I can strongly insist that no community can think any creation of genuine beauty and dignity in its public buildings or in the surroundings of its towns and cities too good a thing for its own deserts. For we deserve what in such realms we can learn how to create or to enjoy, or to make sacrifices for. And no provincialism will become dangerously narrow so long as it is constantly accompanied by a willingness to sacrifice much in order to put in the form of great institutions, oft noble architecture, and of beautiful surroundings an expression of the worth that the community attaches to its own ideals.


  [p. 19]  


Madison is one of the most striking examples that could be selected in the United States of a city which should have a distinct individuality, marked characteristics separating it from and in many respects elevating it above other cities. Its topography, its lake scenery, its early selection as the Capital and as the seat of the State University, its population, its history, - such influential factors as these should surely have found expression in a city plan, a city development and a city life with a form and flavor unlike that of any other place.

Topographically, Madison naturally abounds in interest and picturesque situations. The ground rises and falls from one part of the city to another, and here and there mounts into hills of such eminence as to afford notable sites for important public buildings or residential sections of distinction. The main physical features, however, that win and hold the attention are not these hills and the rolling ground between them, but the large and truly beautiful lakes, directly on and between which, occupying a narrow neck of land, Madison is situated. Northwest of the city is the lovely Lake Mendota, six miles long and nearly four miles wide, with an irregular shore line of twenty miles; southeast is the somewhat smaller but equally attractive Lake Monona, with a shore line of about ten miles. The other two lakes - Waubesa and Kegonsa - are comprised in the so-called "Four Lake Region" of which Madison is the dominating feature. Lake Wingra, a much smaller body of water, completes the chain. No other city of the world, so far as I know, has naturally such a unique situation on a series of lakes,   [p. 20]  

Lake Wingra photo


  [p. 21]   with an opportunity for so much and such direct relationship to beautiful water frontages. The physical situation certainly is distinctly individual.

Madison's early selection as a Capital City should also contribute to its individuality. In 1836Wisconsin was erected into a Territory by act of Congress and the same year, after a severe contest, Madison was selected as the Capital. Among its most formidable rivals were Green Bay, Mineral Point, and Milwaukee, the latter then a tiny village of but three years' growth. Madison's claims were strongly supported by Judge James Duane Doty, an influential politician and the owner of the proposed site. It was pointed out that Madison - which at this time existed as a city only on paper - was centrally situated between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, that it would be a reasonable compromise between the conflicting interests of Green Bay and the mining section of Wisconsin; that its selection would tend to develop the still wild interior and above all that the proposed location was exceptionally healthful and beautiful. Madison's claims were finally recognized and endorsed and it thus became the permanent capital of a great commonwealth.

Here, if ever, was an opportunity for wise and skillful city planning. A site of rare distinction, absolutely without obstacles in the nature of existing streets or buildings, clearly defined purposes to be served and an assured future growth and development. What was actually done by the pioneer surveyor? In a central situation, on a fine hill, seventy-five feet above Lake Monona, but not fronting on either lake, the Capitol Park of about thirteen acres was located with broad avenues eight rods wide running from its center and narrower ones radiating from its corners. For the rest of Madison, all was the usual commonplace gridiron plan without even discriminating   [p. 22]  

Drawing of original Plan of Madison


Compare with present plan of Madison in this report. Note the location of the Capitol, the differentiation in street widths, the use of diagonal streets, and the complete failure to reserve the lake frontages for public purposes.

  [p. 23]   difference in the widths of streets or the sizes of blocks. It is often stated that this plan for Madison resembles the plan of Washington, and was copied after the latter, but there appears to be small justification for the claim.

Drawing of L'Enfant's Plan of Washington


Probably the most far-sighted and skilful city plan ever prepared. Although the topography of Washington is essentially different from Madison the main features of the Washington plan are instructive.

Aside from the four radial streets - which are inadequate in width, and, with the exception of State Street, lacking in significant location or termination - the Madison plan possesses none of the splendid features of L'Enfant's great   [p. 24]  

Drawing of original Plan of Savannah, Ga.

Savannah has what Madison most lacks - small open squares in the heart of the city. Its twenty-five small open squares, set aside without cost, are now valued at $5,063,500.

  [p. 25]   plan for Washington. The excellent and well differentiated street plan of the latter finds no true echo in Madison. There are here no open squares, triangles or circles at the intersection of streets, no reservation of fine sites for public buildings other than the Capitol, and, strangest of all, the lake fronts - the prime and only legitimate

Photo of old Man's Face, Lake Mendota


factor to justify the selection of Madison as the Capital City - were ignored altogether so far as public utilization was concerned. As a matter of fact, the impulse to follow the plan of Washington was not an altogether sound one, for the narrow strip of irregular land in the Wisconsin wilderness, bounded by irregular shore lines at places less than a mile apart, called imperatively for a plan based primarily upon the peculiar topography, and not for the mechanical and thoughtless application of a fixed   [p. 26]   geometrical scheme, no matter how excellent it might be. Tradition records that the plan of Madison was prepared on paper by a surveyor at a place distant from the city without a suitable survey and without any personal knowledge of the property. The character of the plan appears to support this tradition, for not only are grades

Photo of Picnic Point, Lake Mendota


A unique feature which should ultimately be owned by the public.

generally ignored, and later on leveled down to suit the artificial street system, but the subdivision into lots was worked out in unfavorable ways - many of those on Lake Mendota being as much as four hundred feet in length, while some of those on Lake Monona are entirely under water. The original city plan of Madison in 1836 (here reproduced), which is often praised by unthinking people, has little to commend it and so far as marking permanently the individuality of the site for a distinctive city, it was a failure.

  [p. 27]  

Another reason for an individual development of Madison is the fact that it is a "college town," the seat of the State University. The State Constitution, following the precedent of the Territorial legislature, provided for a

"State University, at or near the seat of state government."

In 1848 it was duly incorporated and while it was mismanaged and poorly maintained for many years, it has now become the leading state university, with a student body of nearly five thousand young men and women, and a large annual appropriation from the State which usually exceeds a million dollars. For the purposes of this inquiry, it is pertinent to ask how far and in what ways has this great University placed its impress upon the city of Madison? Is the city's life, its plan, its appearance different because of the location of the University at this point? In answer it may be said that its life is different because the University of Wisconsin is noted for its extra-mural influence; not only in Madison but throughout the entire State, directly and indirectly, its power is felt to form and transform, to inspire and guide the common life. Whether this influence is more marked in Madison than in Milwaukee or any other Wisconsin city - except so far as it is the indirect result of the residence in Madison of the University's teachers - is open to question.

When we turn to the plan and form and character of the city as a city, to its appearance, its countenance, do we not find the contribution of the University confined practically to the University's buildings and grounds? Do we note any individual stamp upon Madison as a result of the University's influence - better located and better built streets, finer city buildings, art museums, botanical, zoological and other gardens? Do we observe a more enlightened method than is common of home-building? Do   [p. 28]  

Photo of Lake Monona, Turvill's Point
Photo of Lake Monona, Turvill's Bay


  [p. 29]   we see the influence of higher education in the recreations of the people - in the theatres, in parks and playgrounds? Do we find noble statuary marking for all time the entrancing history of this fine old State and its steadily unfolding civilization? If not, must we not say that a grand opportunity has been lost to influence in deep and permanent ways the population not only of Madison, but of Wisconsin as a whole? Madison does not belong exclusively to the people who have the good fortune to live there. She is the fair daughter of the entire State, the shrine to which young men and women of the State come at the most impressionable period to secure adequate equipment for noble and successful life and work. And because this is also the Capital City, the representative men from all parts of the State meet here regularly to pass those laws upon which the welfare of Wisconsin rests.

Finally, people may also contribute in many ways to the individuality of a city. The character of the population of Madison from the very earliest settlement was somewhat unusual and might reasonably have been expected to express itself in unusual ways in city making. Many hardy pioneers from New England and New York settled here as in other parts of Wisconsin. Then, coincident with the State's admission to the Union was the German Revolution of 1848, which gave rise to a strong tide of migration hither. The Germans were followed by Scandinavians (chiefly Norwegians), Irish, English, Canadians, Bohemians, Poles, Dutch, Belgians and Swiss. Such immigrants from the Old World often bring traditions and fruits of experience in civic matters that are of value to the New World, and it was natural to expect in Madison some fresh expression of what was best in continental cities.

  [p. 30]  
Photo of Lake Waubesa


  [p. 31]  

Here, then, in a marked type of topography and natural scenery, in the conscious establishment of a city for governmental and higher educational ends, in a varied, strong and virile population, and in a picturesque history, there were ample forces for the expression of civic life in a city of striking individuality, one might almost say personality. So far that expression has manifested itself only in subordinate and minor ways. In larger matters it has failed. As a Capital City, Madison should possess dignity and even some restrained splendor; as a University City it should manifest a love of learning, culture, art, and nature; as a residence city it should be homelike, convenient, healthful and possess ample facilities for wholesome recreation. Fortunately, much of the opportunity in all three directions still stands open and it is one of the main purposes of this report to show how the natural and adequate provision for the improvement of Madison will lead to a direct development of its individuality as a city.

Photo of Madison from Monona Bay


A site of rare distinction, equalled by few cities in the world.

  [p. 32]  
Photo of University Drive, Madison


Map: General Plan For District of the Four Lakes


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