Sunday, March 02, 2008

finding history

I know what you’re thinking. Madison hasn’t a personality. Rip out the Capitol and the campus and you have anytown, USA, with the requisite sprawl and a downtown that, on a winter Sunday, looks hollowed out and, well, dull.

You’re so wrong.

But maybe Ocean hasn’t helped much in creating a richer texture to this town. Maybe my preoccupation with work (hence the stream of campus photos) and my photographic laziness (hence the Capitol, shot from all angles) have lead you to think there’s not much more?

Today – a day as gray as they come – Ed and I set out to walk in the footsteps of Madison’s first settlers. Ed loves reading historical plaques and boards almost as much as reading Wired Magazine and the New Yorker (in that order), but on this walk, we had to rely on notes from the Net. There are few commemorative markers indicating the rich heritage of downtown Madison.

How old is this place anyway?

In 1846, the population of this, well, village, was 626. Perfect for locating the capital of the territory of Wisconsin here. I mean, why not start out small? But as the construction of the Capitol building began, the neighborhood just east of it hummed.

And part of me wants to be in that Madison now, because it grew as a town of family grocers and bakers and saddle makers (I’m talking about a very small part of me, since they had heating issues then), with a rail connection to the north and to the south, a large train depot and several adjacent hotels and dining rooms (is a saloon a dining room?).

In just a small handful of blocks, we saw not a small number of the houses from this early settlement. It’s a terrific stroll to take if you want to get to know the town better (you can find details of the historic neighborhood here). Probably even more terrific on a summer or spring day. But forget the grayness. There’s enough color in the red Madison brick and the sandstone used for construction back in the late 1800s. Take a look:

[East Main Street, as it hits the Capitol Square:]

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possibly the oldest commercial block in Madison, circa 1847: once home to a newspaper

[King Street, fanning away from the Square:]

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to the left, the building with the turret: a Schlitz saloon, in front of modernity

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a detail of a building once housing newspapers and harnesses (and on the left, the Capitol)

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once a hotel and livery

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began as a grocery, then a bread bakery...

[East Wilson Street, as it runs into Williamson Street:]

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former hotel and saloon

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once a depot, now not much of anything; though the tracks do swing by the Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace

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former warehouse

[the residential South Hancock and South Franklin Streets:]

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1853 home of a marble cutter

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they made horse collar pads

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"downtown" hotel owners

And think how gorgeous it’ll be once the dirty snow disappears. Which, my commenters reassure me, will be very soon.