Wisconsin’s new historical museum should look historic

Or make history!

Hooray for Fred & Mary Mohs in selling (apparently) their properties along N. Carroll Street below market value to enlarge the WI Historical Museum (as reported in the WI State Journal). Few have been greater champions of downtown Madison. Downtowns are the beating heart of any city.

But we’ll miss those storefronts between the Churchill Building (Madison’s first high-rise, also known as the Gay Building — after the proper name of an individual) and the old Wolf Kubly Hirsig hardware store, which now serves as the museum. Those two three-story buildings are pedestrian friendly. Helps that they have multiple retail entry points (a long-standing camera store among them). 

We’re left rather cold by the mock-up of the boxy glassy building designed to replace it. Don’t we already have “the glass bank” on the Square? Too bad the new structure won’t replace the hideous, forbidding fortress-like GEF-1 building east of the Square. Down with brutalism!

Something that says ‘Wisconsin’

Why not build Madison’s new historical museum in whatever is Wisconsin vernacular? What would that be? Milwaukee has done well to emulate its Flemish-style city hall. Don’t know how practical this is but how about something that evokes the classic Wisconsin red barn, fieldstone first floor topped by a gambrel roof? Admittedly, there would need be some setback to accommodate the volume needed. Danger that it would resemble a Cracker Barrel restaurant. (The Kastenmeier federal courthouse is patterned after a blue Harvestore silo.)

Or something sui generis like Prague’s idiosyncratic Fred & Ginger building designed by architect Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry. Speaking of Prague, isn’t the architecture a prime reason people visit? (We did in 2007.)

Out with the new

The Werkes confesses a certain agnosticism to most buildings constructed after 1945. Has anyone improved on the federalist style? Greek revival? Is any government building in Washington D.C. more beautiful than the neo-classical White House?

The two N. Carroll Street buildings owned by the Mohs — longtime active Republicans — were  built in 1905 and 1912.

On the Square, our two favorite buildings — aside from the Capital itself (1906-17) are old-timers: Grace Episcopal Church, built in the Gothic Revival style, looked across Carroll Street to the first Madison capitol when it was built in 1855); and the old American Exchange Bank (1871 in the Italian Renaissance style).

On the UW Campus, can you beat Bascom Hall? Music Hall? North Hall? All built in the 19th Century. The Wisconsin Discovery Building is one of the better newer buildings on campus. Best looking school buildings: East high (built 1922) and Randall elementary (circa 1914). 

Blaska’s Bottom Line: Quotes architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.

Should it be built with plywood already covering the windows?

About David Blaska

Madison WI
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10 Responses to Wisconsin’s new historical museum should look historic

  1. Gary L. Kriewald says:

    I’ve always said no one does bland like Madison. For every building (usually those built a century or more ago and have miraculously escaped the wrecking ball) that can claim any kind of architectural distinction, there are a dozen that barely elicit a yawn. And now we can count the new Historical Society building among them. Perhaps the only modern building that can boast any distinction is the George Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus (designed by renowned Chicago architect Harry Weese), which UW administrators have targeted for demolition for decades. They say it’s hard to navigate, it leaks, it’s not energy efficient, blah, blah, blah. If those standards were universally enforced, not a single Frank Lloyd Wright building would remain standing. Even if Brutalism isn’t your favorite style, Weese’s building is inspired as much by ancient Greek temples as by modernist principles. It will undoubtedly be replaced by a structure that could just as easily serve as a terminal at O’Hare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • georgessson says:

      Good snag, Gary. And think of all the protests and subsequent history made in the 1970’s w/ the Humanites building as a back-drop… And the anti-war graffiti on the construction fences… It may not be pretty per se, but sure reflects history.


  2. georgessson says:

    Yep, If Epic can do Russian themes, a storybook castle, a huge red barn conglomeration, and more, why can’t the Historical Society be more personable than glass-on-glass? Why emulate a bank, fer Cry-eye! BUT please: NO Frank Ghery influence. He’s been responsible for reprehensible designs for decades. Check his OWN HOME in L.A. here, but keep a gag rag at the ready… https://www.archdaily.com/67321/gehry-residence-frank-gehry


  3. Liberty says:

    The Wisconsin Capital building is just gorgeous. Is it considered Beaux-Art?


    • David Blaska says:

      That is exactly what it is. Style popularized by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.


      • Liberty says:

        You know your architecture! I did not know that.


        • Gary L. Kriewald says:

          Ironically, by the time the State Capitol was finally finished, the Beaux Arts style was considered passe even by mainstream architects, not just the avant-garde. Still, nothing built in Madison since then has even come close to it.


  4. richard lesiak says:

    Nice deflection Dave. The gop is banning WORDS. Gableman has a witch hunt going on. And what are we writing about? If a building gives you a woodie. How about getting into real issues for once. There are a few out there ‘ya know.


    • David Blaska says:

      The GOP is banning hate speech. The mural is a visual representation of the rot of the “Woke Racism” that Prof. McWhorter exposes and in which you acquiesce. (As for the November 3 election, my position is well known.)


  5. urbaniste81 says:

    I look at that image and wonder what they’re thinking. Of all of the block faces surrounding the Capitol, the only one left that really gave a sense of the Madison of “days gone by” was that block of N. Carroll. The character of the buildings, and how they related to the street were wonderful; and delightful to walk by at night. The view from the law offices toward the Capitol were spectacular. And ground floor retail! I always figured that in the end Fred and Mary would sell the properties for something that would cause their demise. Commercial buildings that are historical always face a more challenging future because they ARE commercial buildings. They just don’t have the emotional attachment that historical houses have. It’s been a problem for all the years I’ve been connected to Madison.

    While I’m not sure that a “red barn motif” works on the Square, there are wonderful examples of the use of Kasota stone (or other non-glass materials) in Madison that could create a great transition piece. Something with texture, and depth, and character. It can be modern and respectful in ways that I don’t believe the existing museum actually delivers on anyway. Oh, and here’s a novel idea, maybe something that the way the building relates to the Mifflin edge that provides for a better public space in that area. Couldn’t hurt.


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