HOMETOWN: MADISON, WI Entry by Allison Semrad


It’s late April, which means that summer is just around the corner. As the temperature rises (slowly) and New York’s restaurants begin (not early enough) to reinstate backyard dining and sidewalk brunches, I can’t help but daydream about the warmer months in my hometown – Madison, Wisconsin. My favorite slice of the Midwest, this city is home to the state capital, the University of Wisconsin, and about 250,000 residents. It is located in south-central Wisconsin about three hours from Chicago, and is nestled between two lakes, Mendota and Monona.

If you are reading from Madison, I’ll offer full transparency and admit I actually grew up in Middleton, six miles to the west. But I’ll also offer that these harshly drawn distinctions speak to the city’s compact nature and the immense pride that Madisonians have for their beautiful city by the lakes.

Summer is undisputedly Madison’s best season. In the coming months, I am looking forward to Saturdays spent at the Capitol Square Farmer’s Market followed by a leisurely ramble (produce in hand) toward the University’s Memorial Union Terrace. Inevitably, I’ll indulge in a scoop of locally-made Babcock ice cream or a pint of Wisconsin’s beloved beer, Spotted Cow (on the quest for healthy eating, I’d call this a toss).

Eating and drinking aside, the quickest route between the Capitol Square and the Terrace is via State Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare, about six-tenths of a mile. State Street features many classic Madison institutions; B-Side records, Ian’s Pizza, Paul’s Books, and Whiskey Jacks (only cherished if you are under 24). And, I argue, State Street also features some of the city’s best architecture. It is a real, varied treasure box of buildings; including masonry facades dating back to the 1850s, odd examples of twentieth-century commercial buildings, and even a glassy, new architectural gem, César Pelli’s Overture Center for the Performing Arts including the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). In this installment of the Lookup Collective blog (and hypothetical Saturday stroll), I’ll highlight a few historic buildings along State Street.

MMoCA, Cesar Pelli Building opened 2006 (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mmocaicon.jpg)


Triangle Market at 302 State Street, built 1899 (Image Source: Photo by Author)

Directly across from MMoCA’s pointed museum façade is 302 State Street, more commonly known as the Triangle Market. Built as the Matthew Gay Building in 1899, this Queen Anne Victorian also reaches up with its rounded turret and conical roof.[1] The building displays many facets of yesteryear; curved glass windows, cloth awnings, and vintage signs that poke fun at its own historic character claiming “Tours Daily,” and “Free Admission.” While originally built for a tailor, the building’s identity as the Triangle Market stretches back to the early 1970s.[2]

Castle & Doyle Façade at 125 State Street in 2009 before the Block 100 redevelopment project (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another notable building can be found just one block east at 125 State Street. Despite its flashy façade, this building was originally constructed in 1857 as a red brick fire station, just one year after Madison’s incorporation as a city.[3] In 1921, the engine company moved to a larger building, and a local architecture firm, Claude and Starck, added the elaborate green and white terra cotta tile for a new tenant, the Castle & Doyle Coal Company.[4] The building was designated a Madison Historic Landmark in 1974, but proved contentious in a recent redevelopment project. A 2011 proposal put forward a controversial plan to deconstruct the terra cotta façade and reattach it to a new, larger building.[5] Luckily, however, the original 1857 structure was saved, and now, new construction surrounds the Castle & Doyle Building, including retail storefronts and office space above.[6]

Sacred Feather at 417 State Street, n.d., after Façade Improvement. (Image Source: www.cityofmadison.com)

A little reminiscent of Stuart Little, this Queen Anne at 417 State is the street’s last freestanding house. Originally known as the Hubert Schmitz Boarding House, the building’s existence hints at State Street’s beginnings as a wealthy residential neighborhood.[7] It was constructed with Milwaukee Cream City Brick and boasts some fancy Victorian features, like its shingled gable-end and decorative window surrounds. Since 1980, it has been the business home of Sacred Feather, a quaint hat shop.[8]

216 State Street, Orpheum Theater State Street Entrance, 2007. (Image Source: National Register Nomination Record 07001460)

Finally, a discussion of State Street’s historic architecture would not be complete without Madison’s Orpheum Theater, built in 1926 by master theater architects Rapp & Rapp.[9] It is Madison’s most intact example of a grand 1920s movie palace, built to accommodate the growing popularity of motion pictures. It also included an early climate control system, rare for the city of Madison at this time.[10] The Orpheum features a limestone façade with art-deco details, as well as a monstrous marquee and sign. The building was modified in the 1960s but maintains many of its original interior features, including terrazzo floors and plaster ceilings.[11] In 2013, Madisonian Gus Paras purchased the Orpheum, well-aware of its deteriorating condition. Paras and co-owner Henry Doane lovingly restored the building,[12] and in June of 2016, its reconstructed sign was installed.[13]

New sign being installed at Orpheum Theater, July 2016. (Image Source: John Hart for Wisconsin State Journal Article, “Photos: New sign going up at iconic Orpheum Theater on State Street” http://host.madison.com)

For another example of a Madison movie palace, just look across the street to the Overture Center’s Civic Center entrance. This building remnant was also constructed by Rapp & Rapp as part of the 1928 Capitol Theater, with an exotic, Moorish-influenced design.[14] The Capitol Theater was heavily modified in the 1970s and its remaining interior auditorium was swept into the new Overture Center in 1998.[15] Both venues continue to host events. (I, for one, am bummed I missed the Decemberists when they came to town in 2007, as evidenced by the above photograph from the Orpheum’s national register nomination form.)

Signs for Madison’s movie palaces visible on State Street c. 1929. (Image Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 3157 from WSJ Article “Photos: New sign going up at iconic Orpheum Theater on State Street”)

Although State Street features a variety of historical styles and many old, intact buildings, this popular pedestrian thoroughfare has not been designated as a local historic district. In 1997, an area district was nominated to the state register of historic places, but its national register nomination was unsuccessful.[16] I would guess this has something to do with State Street’s propensity for change. This area of downtown Madison (including the west half of State Street) is currently shifting more rapidly than ever, witnessing the construction of hundreds of thousands of square feet of luxury apartments.

So here comes my Wisco-appropriate cheesy conclusion: While I make the summer-Saturday trek down State Street, I often pay attention to quirky turrets, limestone parapets, towering marquee signs, and Victorian bay windows. Hopefully, these brief mentions of historic buildings serve as a reminder that cities are full of interesting, vibrant places. Madisonians have been working and living along State Street for more than a hundred years, and this thoroughfare provides a rich example of a resilient, yet constantly-evolving streetscape – including some downright weird, beautiful, and very cool buildings.



[1] Chris Martell, “Look up!,” Wisconsin State Journal, May 18, 2003, I-1.

[2] Triangle Superette Market Photograph Record, Imaged ID 35596, James T. Potter Collection, accessed April 24, 2017 at WHS online database, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294955414&dsRecordDetails=R:IM35596

[3] Jay Rath. “The story behind a city landmark.” Isthmus, January 26, 2012, Accessed online April 24, 2017, http://isthmus.com/arts/the-castle-and-doyle-building-on-a-block-eyed-for-redevelopment-is-more-than-just-an-eyesore/.

[4] Ibid. & Martell, “Look up!,” I-J.

[5] Joe Tarr. “100 block stores must move out for State Street development,” Isthmus, November 3, 2011, Accessed online April 24, 2017, http://isthmus.com/news/news/100-block-stores-must-move-out-for-state-street-development/

[6] Potter Lawson Inc., “Block 100 Foundation Revised Plan Commission Submittal.” Accessed online April 24, 2017, https://www.cityofmadison.com/planning/projects/reports/100ss_intent.pdf

[7] Martell, “Look up!,” I-J.

[8] “About Us,” Sacred Feather, Accessed online April 24, 2017 at https://sacred-feather.myshopify.com/pages/about-us

[9] Doane, Henry. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Orpheum Theater, Form ID 07001460.” NPS Online Database, June 15, 2007.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joe Tarr. “Gus Para: A State Street Love Story,” Isthmus, November 21, 2013, Accessed online April 24, 2017 at http://isthmus.com/arts/gus-paras-a-state-street-love-story/

[13] Bill Novak, “Orpheum Theater sign to shine over State Street once again” Wisconsin State Journal, July 7, 2016, Accessed online April 24, 2017 at http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/orpheum-theater-sign-to-shine-over-state-street-once-again/article_004eff87-5d67-5281-9459-5ea90a169b3f.html

[14] Doane. “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wisconsin Historic Properties List, accessed through Wisconsin Historical Society Website on April 24, 2017, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetails=R:CS2836.

Main Photo: Aerial view of Madison. (Image Source: http://www.wisc.edu/about/)