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

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[chapter 2]

  [p. 33]     [p. 34]  

To make cities - that is what we are here for. For the city is strategic. It makes the towns; the towns make the villages; the villages make the country. He who makes the city makes the world. After all, though men make cities, it is cities which make men. Whether our national life is great or mean, whether our social virtues are mature or stunted, whether our sons are moral or vicious, whether religion is possible or impossible, depends upon the city.... To the reformer, the philanthropist, the economist, the politician, this vision of the city is the great classic of social literature.


  [p. 35]  


Madison's main function, after all, is to serve as a State Capital. For that purpose it was selected, for that first settled, for that it should be planned and replanned, as new needs and changing conditions and rising standards require. This applies first of all to the State House itself, its setting and approaches; but it applies with equal force to those other features of the city plan that can only be appropriately developed through the power and co-operation of the State.

The Wisconsin is now erecting a new and fitting Capitol building which will cost six million dollars or more. Although it is many times the size of the first modest structure, the ground in which it is to be set is the same as that for the original Capitol. And outside of this one limited block of ground the State has taken no steps whatever to control or improve the surroundings to its great building or the approaches to it. This is not a wise and comprehensive way of making large public improvements. It gives the impression that while Wisconsin may build a dignified and appropriate Capitol, the State is too poor or too narrow in its views to surround the building properly and to treat the approaches to it so as to permit the great structure to be seen and appreciated at its true value.

The first need is to control the upbuilding around Capitol Square. At the present time, no special restrictions are placed upon this property and yet it is of the utmost importance that not only the height but the architectural character of all buildings around this square should be   [p. 36]   reasonably regulated; not to such an extent as to interfere with the effective use of the property by private owners, and yet so as to protect the large interests of the public in this locality. Action should be taken without delay

Photo of State Capitol, Hartford, Conn.


A tract of 42 acres, purchased in 1854 for less than $50,000, and now worth $1,500,000.

for the demands upon these blocks are now rapidly changing, and the "sky-scraper" or other offensive structure may be begun at any time.1

The six blocks southeast of Capitol Square, between Main Street and Lake Monona, should be acquired by   [p. 37]   the State and added to its present property. Thus would be secured the additional land urgently needed as a setting for the Capitol, as sites for other public buildings which the increasing business of the State will soon require,

Photo of State Capitol, Providence, R.I.


The development of the grounds required the removal of 56 buildings in order to obtain a 17-acre site for the new state capitol.

and above all organic relation between the new Capitol and Lake Monona. I submit with this report suggestive plans and sketches merely to show the wonderful possibilities that would be immediately opened up by the public possession of these six blocks, the filling in of   [p. 38]  

Drawing of proposed approaches to State Capitol, St. Paul

Proposed approaches to the Minnesota State Capitol at St. Paul.

  [p. 39]  

Drawing of plan of Columbia, S.C.

General plan for Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina, a city about the size of Madison. The plan provides for all the features of a comprehensive city plan including over 800 acres of parks.

  [p. 40]   Monona Lake front and the logical and much needed improvement of the railroad approaches in East Madison.

While six blocks would have to be cleared for the execution of such a plan, no important buildings would be destroyed and the ground so secured need not remain idle. These blocks would furnish perfect sites for at least six large public buildings. Just what these should be it is not necessary now to say. The two nearest the Capitol would undoubtedly be required at once by the State. The next two might be constructed with regard to the future needs of the State, but used in the meantime as private office buildings. The two building sites nearest Lake Monona might, perhaps, be most profitably used for semi-public purposes, - one a really fine theatre and opera house as a State educational feature, the other a much needed hotel with a character and situation that could scarcely be equalled elsewhere in Wisconsin and comparable

Drawing of plan for Improvement of Harrisburg, Pa.

The improvement of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, offers valuable lessons to Madison. Within a decade Harrisburg has acquired and developed large parks, connecting them by parkways; secured for the public practically all the city's water front; opened and developed playgrounds; and carried out other large and lasting improvements. Although a large increase has been made in the city's indebtedness, the increase in taxation has been slight.

  [p. 41]  

Drawing of public Buildings Group, Cleveland

The group plan of public and semi-public buildings at Cleveland, Ohio, initiated and forwarded by the Chamber of Commerce. It involves the expenditure of more than thirteen million dollars. The city, the county, the nation, and the railroads are co-operating in the plan, the success of which is now assured.

  [p. 42]  

Drawing of proposed Public Buildings Group, St. Louis

Proposed Municipal Court and Public Parkway, St. Louis.

  [p. 43]   in many ways to the Chateau Frontenac at Quebec. This scheme for the utilization of a portion of these blocks for public buildings is of great importance both economically and aesthetically; it is difficult to say which element predominates. It makes the whole plan reasonable in cost and thoroughly practicable. Running in front of these buildings and connecting them with the Capitol,

Drawing of The Mall, Washington


Showing proposed grouping of public buildings.

and the Capitol with the lake, would be the Great Mall four hundred feet in width and nearly a thousand feet long.

The Monona Lake Front improvement might very readily, and at relatively low cost, too, be better than anything of the kind that has so far been done in this country; in fact, when we consider the situation and size of the Capitol, the character of the proposed group of buildings and the exquisite natural beauty of Lake Monona, it is not too much to say that this waterfront esplanade, a mile and a half in length, might equal any similar development anywhere   [p. 44]  

Photos of Carroll and Pinckney Streets, opposite the Capitol


"The first need is to control the up-building around Capitol Square. At the present time no restrictions are placed upon this property and yet it is of the utmost importance that not only the height but the architectural character of all buildings around this square should be reasonably regulated."

  [p. 45]   in the world. The whole scheme presents an opportunity - granting the co-operation of the railroads and the city, - which almost any other State in the country would eagerly embrace; and if properly carried out, it would contribute more than any one thing to the making of Madison a worthy Capital City for Wisconsin. Surely it would arouse enthusiasm throughout the State and win the financial and civic support of all the people; it would

Photo of site of Proposed Terrace, Monona Avenue, Madison

Site of proposed terrace at the foot of Monona Avenue, Madison, overlooking the lake.

add just the element that is needed to make the new Capitol what it should be - the greatest permanent work of civic art in the State.

These changes would affect only the approach to the Capitol along what is now Monona Avenue. But all the other approaches are in some sense important, especially State Street; in fact, State Street, connecting diagonally as it does, the Capitol and University and the desirable   [p. 46]  

Drawing of General Plan of Proposed Approach to Capitol


  [p. 47]  

Drawing of General Plan of Proposed Approach to Capitol


  [p. 48]  

Drawing of Sectional View of Lake Monona Approach


  [p. 49]   residence section beyond, is probably the most used mile of street in Madison, certainly it is the most important. Here is an example of the shortsightedness of the planners of Madison as compared with those of the Federal City, for while Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, a street of about equal length, connecting the Capitol and the White House, is 175 feet wide, State Street, Madison, is

Photo of Garden at Versailles

A view in the gardens of Versailles, suggesting an appropriate style of treatment for the proposed approach to the new Wisconsin State Capitol from Lake Monona.

only 66 feet wide. Already, it is too narrow for the demands upon it, commonplace in character and steadily becoming more so. Is there any hope for improvement, except in State action? It is generally agreed that there is not. And are not the interests of the State vitally concerned in the width and appearance of State Street? It is generally agreed that they are. What, then, can be done? Clearly, the State should widen State Street from the Capitol to the University and place such special restrictions   [p. 50]  

Drawing of the New Wisconsin Capitol


  [p. 51]   as are necessary upon all new buildings to be erected thereon. The question immediately arises, how wide should State Street be? It might be desirable to make it very wide, say 150 or 200 feet, but on account of the present high value of the property and the shallowness of many of the lots, especially those near the Capitol,

Photo of Dufferin Terrace, Quebec


Its attractions might easily be equalled, if not surpassed, in the proposed terrace for Lake Monona, Madison.

I am inclined to recommend that it be widened to only 100 feet. This width would make ample provision for a double tracking of electric cars, if cars are permitted to remain on State Street, for two vehicles to pass comfortably on either side of the tracks, and for a wide tree planted sidewalk, all of which are shown in the accompanying plan. The plan shows also the proposal to set   [p. 52]   aside as an open space the triangle midway between the Capitol and the University bounded by Gorham and Broom Streets. With the power of excess condemnation, necessary in this case for the protection of the new frontages, I believe the State of Wisconsin could execute this great public improvement without a dollar of expense,

Photo of State Street, Madison, as it is

State Street, Madison, as it is today.

and unless this action, or something akin to it is taken, State Street will remain the present unhappy example of a commonplace and inconvenient city street, notwithstanding its apparently permanent pre-eminence in location. [1*]

But there are still other features of the city plan of Madison that can only be appropriately developed by the   [p. 53]   power and co-operation of the State government, features, too, that affect vitally the serviceability of Madison as a Capital city. For example, the State should take whatever action is necessary (1) to establish all the main thoroughfares of Madison not only within the present city limits, which are narrow, but more especially in those

Drawing of State Street, Madison, as proposed

State Street, Madison, as proposed.

outlying sections which should soon form an integral part of the city; (2) to secure for public use either as highways or open spaces the most important lake frontages; (3) to inaugurate an equitable plan for the drainage and filling of all marsh land within or near the city limits.

Faulty as the original plan of Madison may have been, it had at least the merit of marking out definitely the main thoroughfares and in some instances - Washington Avenue, for example - of giving them adequate width. But what of subsequent action? Since the days of 1836   [p. 54]  

Sketch of Proposed State Street Triangle

Sketch of proposed triangle on State Street, Madison, at the intersection with Broom and Gorham Streets. It would afford attractive and valuable sites for public and semi-public buildings fronting on an agreeable open space midway between the Capitol and the University.

  [p. 55]  

Drawings of Plan for Improvement of State Street; Bull Street, Savannah

1. Plan for improvement of State Street, showing proposed widening and triangle at the intersection of Gorham Street.

2. Bull Street, Savannah, suggestive for State Street, Madison, in its terminal features and numerous open spaces at street intersections.

  [p. 56]   when the original plan was adopted, notwithstanding the new and increased demands upon the highways, no street of a width equal to that of Washington Avenue has been platted in Madison, and even West Washington Avenue itself, has been narrowed from 132 feet to 66 feet within five blocks of the State Capitol and there practically halted by railroad tracks. In addition to the approaches to the Capitol already mentioned, the State might very properly concern itself with such main thoroughfares as University Avenue, which should be extended at once so as to connect with West Washington Avenue; Monroe Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, Park Street, Lakeside Street, Jackson Street, Washington Street, and Regent Avenue; with outlying roads like Verona Road, Middleton Road, Sun Prairie Road, and the other main highways of the future city, all of which are shown on the suggestive plan here submitted. These main avenues need to be looked upon as State roads; to be given continuity, adequate width, and appropriate development. Moreover, a policy should be adopted which would lead to the gradual abolition of all grade crossings on these and other important streets. The railroads have been allowed to cut mercilessly

Photo of Copley Square, Boston. Church and Art Institute

Buildings surrounding Copley Square, Boston, an open space not unlike the proposed State Street Triangle, Madison.

  [p. 57]   into Madison without regard to the protection of other aspects of city life, and the present locations, power and control of the railroads involve grave problems for the future. It is now scarcely possible to go a mile in any direction from the center of the city without crossing railroad tracks at grade, in some central situations there are as many as a dozen tracks in one place.

The State should likewise move promptly and energetically to acquire for public use the main water frontages of Lakes Mendota and Monona and to some extent Waubesa and Kegonsa, so as to form a veritable Four Lake District, connected throughout by convenient land and waterways and available for the general public. [2*] With the exception of street ends, two relatively short stretches of filled in marsh land secured through the energy of the Park and Pleasure Drive Association, and the grounds of the University, - the public are practically excluded from the use and enjoyment of the Madison lake shores. This is not right and never will be. A comparatively few individuals possess and now monopolize one of the great natural features of Madison which should belong

Photo of Copley Square, Boston. Public Library

Continuation of buildings surrounding Copley Square, Boston.

  [p. 58]   to society and upon the free use of which the welfare of society ultimately depends. I do not advocate the acquisition by the State of all the lake margins of Madison. Unfortunately, it is now too late for that. But I do earnestly recommend that the commonwealth acquire whatever is necessary to form a complete system of drives

Photo of Thoroughfare with Street Railway

A thoroughfare, 175 feet wide, through a Boston suburb. A model for the treatment of University Avenue, Verona Road, Sun Prairie Road, and other outlying highways of Madison.

mainly on the lake shores and a liberal provision of water-front parks and open spaces and public landings. The reservation of the right of access to the shore which prevails at Newport, R. I., and herein illustrated, should be established at Madison.

State action is also called for in connection with the marsh lands. There appears to be no hope that they will be reclaimed in the right way and at the right time unless   [p. 59]   the State moves in the matter. Private individuals or the city cannot unaided compass so large an object. The result is that marsh lands within a few hundred yards of the State Capitol remain today as they were when the Winnebagoes were seeking peltries in the Four Lake Region, except that now they have been rendered unsightly

Photo of New Avenue, Rio de Janiero

A new street, 100 feet wide, in Rio de Janeiro, cut through a built-up section, its cost being entirely covered by the sale of the new frontages. University Avenue, Madison, from Gorham Street to West Washington Avenue and Henry Street could be handled in the same way.

by the deposit here, there, and everywhere of the hideous and often unsanitary and unsafe debris which characterizes modern cities in the United States. To leave these marshes to the slow process of filling by present methods means not only to postpone indefinitely their redemption; it means also that much of the ground which they now cover will be occupied permanently by cheap improvements, whereas it might readily be formed into desirable   [p. 60]  

Photos of Public Shore Walk, Newport

Public Shore Walk at Newport, Rhode Island, permitting access to the water at all points. If this is desirable for the public at Newport, why not at Madison?

  [p. 61]   residence sections or be utilized for public recreation areas now so greatly needed.2

Madison will remain a city of only ordinary public convenience and appearance until the State embraces its peculiar opportunity and assumes its legitimate responsibility. There is as much reason for a State like Wisconsin to endeavor to establish a model city as a model farm. No more possible is it for the little handful of people living

Photo of Brittingham Park, Madison


The advantages of a lake shore drive are here already demonstrated.

in Madison now, or even the larger population likely to live there later, to make a worthy State Capital than it was for the people of Washington to advance that city to a respectable place among the nations of the world. The case of Washington is clear and convincing and there is a strong analogy between the relation of the nation to the improvement of Washington and that of the State to the improvement of Madison.

The present beautiful city of Washington is not an accident. It did not just happen. To begin with, there was a good plan - the plan of George Washington and Major L'Enfant. But a good plan was not enough, as the history   [p. 62]   of Washington illustrates. The city remained for three-quarters of a century backward and undeveloped and unlovely, literally a national disgrace, until 1871 when a territorial form of government was established in which the nation participated. In the short space of the following

Photo of Lake Front, Lake Geneva, Switzerland


A situation that could be duplicated many times on the Madison Lakes, if the city were developed under a proper city plan.

three years, vast results in city making were achieved. Miles upon miles of streets were graded and paved; the beautiful shade-trees which we now take so much pride in were planted, sewers were laid, railroad tracks removed from important streets and many other things that had so long called in vain for attention now received it. A new era was begun. The credit for the execution of these great   [p. 63]   changes belongs mainly to one man - Alexander Robey Shepherd. He saw that the administration of the municipal affairs of Washington ought to be tied more closely to the national government, the closer the better, and in this view he was strongly supported by President Grant. After enabling laws were passed and he was given a part in the newly established form of government, he proceeded with Herculean energy to carry out the original plan of Washington, to make retreat from that plan ever after impossible. What a debt we all owe to this intrepid civic hero, whose services at first misunderstood or unappreciated, have recently been recognized by the erection in front of the new municipal building in Washington of a worthy monument! At its dedication, the Chairman of the Memorial Committee, Theodore W. Noyes, said:

"Shepherd's ambition, his controlling, absorbing purpose, was to raise his native city from the dust and to place it in the position of honor to which as the National capital it was entitled. He burned with indignation at the sneers aimed by foreigners and other visitors at the despised capital at a time when, through the repudiation of national obligations and through the limitation of cramped local resources and ideas the city was a national reproach. He saw the scanty population of Washington's half dozen straggling, wrangling villages staggering unaided under the burden of capital-making, broken down in the effort, helpless, hopeless. He saw the nation, which had in the beginning undertaken this task and then abandoned it to the feeble local population, watching with indifference the latter's struggle, and paralyzing local development by holding constantly over the city's head the threat of capital removal. He recognized the only means of revolutionizing these conditions, and he had the courage and the will to adopt this means and to follow it unflinchingly   [p. 64]   to success. The city was hemmed in, its development was checked, access to its heritage of national affection and pride was denied by obstructing walls built high through local shortsightedness and congressional neglect. Shepherd became a mighty battering ram leveled at these obstructions. In the crash of the collision this engine was for a time overturned and broken, but its work was done. The obstructing walls went down forever. They can never rise again."

The permanent upbuilding of Washington along well-considered lines was not absolutely insured, however, until the present form of government by commission was established in 1878. Thus the Washington that we know is the direct result of the work of the last thirty years, the period during which the National government has frankly assumed its responsibility. Its control now rests in a municipal corporation administered by a board of three commissioners, two appointed from civil life by the President, and confirmed by the Senate, for a term of three years, and the other detailed by the President from the Engineer Corps of the army. Under this form of government, Congress appropriates fifty per cent of the expenses, and the remaining fifty per cent - amounting to about the usual tax in American cities - is assessed upon the taxable property and privileges of the District.

Whether the State of Wisconsin should assume some such special control over the city of Madison or whether its form of government should be changed at all, I am not qualified to say. But I am convinced from observation and study that a dignified and appropriate development of the city as a State Capital is impossible by a group of 25,000 people with very limited powers and an annual budget for all municipal purposes of less than a half million dollars. The larger financial resources, credit and authority of the State must somehow be secured.

  [p. 65]  
Photos of Marsh Lands along East Washington Avenue, Madison

Marsh lands, Madison, on East Washington Avenue, the main approach to the State Capitol. What is their future likely to be without state action?


[1*] Many examples could be given from abroad and a few from this country to prove the soundness of this recommendation. In many places new streets are being cut through solidly built-up sections and narrow streets widened without cost to the public.

[2*] The work of the Yahara River Improvement Association is directly in line with this proposal.

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