Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The State Capitol in Madison – Center of the Universe

Dateline: 9:58 pm December 19, 2012 Filed under:

One of the many charms of Madison, Wisconsin is the Wisconsin State Capitol building and grounds. I will explain how it trumps even the capitol building in the nation’s capital, but first a story.

Wisconsin State Capitol “by the light of the moon”

In early 2011 a battle was raging in the halls and on the state capitol grounds over Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to end collective bargaining among unions. The unions fought back and a bitter standoff ensued, culminating in a failed vote to oust Walker. The State of Wisconsin, bless their collective hearts, is bruised if not permanently scarred by the episode.

But this isn’t a story about Walker versus the unions, but rather about the role of the Capitol building itself, right there in the middle of Madison. The capitol is the place where the protestors assembled, marched, chanted and hunkered down. At the time of the protests in early 2011, I was the interim communications director at the Congress for the New Urbanism. We were planning to (and did) host the 19th Congress (conference) in Madison that June. Among the strategies discussed to draw attendees to the conference was how to leverage these protests, which were making national headlines. We were tempted to show a picture of the protestors holding a sign of protest and superimpose our own “Attend CNU 19” on the sign. Possibly brilliant (John Norquist liked it) but very well a terrible idea, we were talked down from our perch by the remainder of the sensible, grounded staff at CNU. Instead, we promoted attendance at CNU by pointing out how the Capitol and its grounds were an example of the value good urban planning can have in terms of creating quality space for public gatherings of all kinds.

The lesson here is related to both geography and urban planning. The state capitol in Madison is hallowed ground, surrounded by a square at the middle of downtown. It is built on a prominent hill on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona at the geographical center of the city. The wings of the capitol radiate equally in all four directions, not favoring one side of the city or another.

For more than a century it has been a place to gather. The Saturday Farmers Market has been going on for decades, and generations come out each week to circle it slowly, like a procession, in search of coffee, sweet rolls, cheese and possibly farm-grown produce, and to meet and mingle with fellow Madisonians. It is such a great place-based experience that I used to bring dates there. In college! On a Saturday morning! Who does that!?

Madison Farmers Market

Some people spend vast sums on their spiritual health venturing to a spa with a maze, or labyrinth, to center their soul. In Madison you just walk around the state capitol and voila, you are centered and renewed.

When I was in school things were pretty quiet around the capitol square at night. In other words there were no bars. Yet heading home from the Essen Haus and bars farther east meant a jaunt around the ever-present Capitol, quietly watching over you.

Now there are new office buildings, residences and several restaurants on or right off the square. The old US Bank building (formerly Firstar Bank) was previously an eyesore, only now its glass façade encloses two restaurants that allow patrons to gaze out at the capitol (and us to gaze in!). The square is alive again, anchored by the stately capitol.
When I’m driving past on the interstate, eight miles away, I wave at the capitol, shining like a beacon in the distance, day or night.

It is important for cities to have a focal point, a terminating vista, a way to set your urban compass, and Madison has that. Just a week ago I emerged from the Monona Terrace convention center in the early evening after a conference and thought how well integrated it is with the fabric of the city while still being reverent to the capitol building. The Monona Terrace and all buildings built before and after it are height-limited and must not eclipse the capitol on any of the nearby downtown blocks or block the view along any of the eight streets that radiate out from the capitol square. As bold as the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace is (and it is), the view of the capitol is paramount.

The message to out-of-towners experiencing this city is that civic places matter. Not only is the Capitol a big, grand, beautiful building, it is the literal center of town. Not even the capitol in Washington D.C. can claim that. Simply watch the local news and, just like any city in America, the backdrop is the city skyline at night, only in Madison the centerpiece is a brightly lit off-white capitol dome dominating the skyline. Marketing materials show the capitol rising above the city.

If Yoda visited Madison he might say – “the sense of place is strong in this one.” (OK, I’m paraphrasing Darth Vader, but Yoda makes more sense for the tone of this story.)

This place is rooted in the capitol and its physical role in the city. It is where the public can gather for a concert or farmers market, stroll after a meal, meet with an elected official to encourage legislation, protest those officials and their legislation, or walk in the moonlight. In Minnesota, the State Capitol sits somewhat forlorn in an open expanse near a huge Sears parking lot and the bad side of town, separated from downtown by a freeway. Its location hardly inspires visiting, much less protesting. In Madison the state capitol is quite protest-worthy!

And so, when CNU 19 came around that June and William Cronon, a professor of history and geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, give a keynote speech. He took us urbanists on a brief visual tour of the history and geography of Madison, starting and ending, quite appropriately, at the capitol. I was thrilled to hear him speak of the importance of the capitol as a place to be used for civic gatherings of all kinds, even if that gathering is a protest. And so it is, for Wisconsinites of all stripes, citizens, to come and enjoy themselves or fight for what they believe in. The fact that Madison provides this place in such magnificent fashion is simply wonderful.

Wisconsin State Capitol – A reflection of the city

1 Comment »

  1. […] just with transit running up and down it.  Our own Sam Newberg has discussed the relation of the capitol building to the city as a whole, and nothing sums it up better than how State Street flows downhill from it […]

    Pingback by Imagining a Dinkytown Pedestrian Mall | — June 25, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

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