Friday, April 29, 2016


Europe started it. Then it spread with compounding interest through the rest of the world making its first stop in Madison this year. The seed of invention began back in 1984 when Paris decided to hold a one-day event (La Journee Portes Ouvertes) opening the doors to buildings not accessible to the general public as a way for citizens to enjoy the architectural heritage and history of the City of Lights. The event quickly spread to neighboring countries crossing the Atlantic and quickly settling in in major cities in the United States and Canada.
This year Madison has taken up the gauntlet opening up twenty-nine doors that are not normally unlocked to the public at large. The event stretched over five hours on a perfect springtime Sunday. The only issue we had was there was no way we could get to all twenty-nine venues in a five-hour time slot. We poured over the available buildings and came up with a list of six we thought we could get to in the time allotted.
A half-hour before the doors were to open we drove up to "Big Bug" Hill and found a parking space on the street just as someone was pulling out. From here we were to do the rest of our traveling on foot: first stop, Mansion Hill Inn.
Built back when Madison was a mere twenty-years-old for Alexander McDonnell, the contractor hired to build the second Capitol, the residence was to be the most fashionable home money could buy and Madisonians could envy. McDonnell hired local architect August Kutzboch to design the German Romanesque Revival single-family residence. The home's exterior was carved out of local sandstone with extensive ironwork and beautifully proportioned arched windows.
As time progressed the building changed hands and was transformed to an exclusive boarding house. After the boarding house phase the next conversion was to apartments before finally converting to an inn in 1983.
In 2008 Trek Bicycle and Trek Hospitality purchased the inn where they completed a major renovation taking the inn to its present elegant state.
Central to the inn is its spiral staircase going from the main floor all the way to the belvedere that crowns the building. The rooms are available for rent but Trek also uses the inn for its own functions.
You can also stop by the main floor bar for an after work drink or a nightcap to top off your evening.
From the Mansion Hill Inn we walked down to the Masonic Temple.
Built in 1925, there is a boldness and strength in the fa├žade of Doric columns setting up a classic proportion and rhythm to the building's exterior.
The building's interior is less impressive and a bit severe. In order to supplement a decreasing membership it now entertains weddings, fundraisers and corporate events. The only way of viewing the interior of the temple was by waiting for a tour.
Our tour consisted of about fifteen people all wanting to be inspired. The interior is not only severe but massive.
From its lodge meeting rooms to its ballroom and then to the auditorium where the Dali Lama recently held court there is still an emptiness that echoes throughout.
The exterior speaks to a grandeur that isn't replicated in the austerity of the interior and its details. It is still well worth a trip especially if this is where you have to go to see the Dali Lama and find peace and serenity.
On a corner of the square sits the American Exchange Building and American Family Dream Bank, a bank where you go in and record your financial goals and dreams. The building designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style was built in 1871 out of sandstone, a locally abundant material.
This is another building in Madison that has survived the wrecking ball to live another day. The Urban Land Interests purchased the building in 1994 restoring the crumbling building and bringing it up to code. Designated a Historic Place on the National Registry the building has been given an extended life.
A not to be missed red door on North Pinckney now welcomes guests. Not a lot of original interior remains except for the doors of vault. The Dream Bank is open daily for anyone needing a boost or a guide to finding a path to his or her dreams.
Directly across the square via a trip through the Capitol sits another sandstone landmark devoted to dreams, Grace Episcopal Church. The church has been going through extensive renovations that are almost complete.
A restored pipe organ behind the altar is now ready to accompany the choir during services or the organist for concerts.
Architecturally the ceiling is one of the church's most impressive features. Charitably the church's involvement with Porchlight is one of its most generous features housing a homeless shelter with eighty beds.
After a quick stop for lunch we headed down State Street toward the Overture Center for the Arts. When we walked in there was a huge crowd already there but not much signage or indication of where or how the Doors Open event was being handled.
Turned out the crowd was a sold-out one for David Sedaris in the two thousand plus seat Overture Hall. We finally made our way to the information booth just in time to snatch Alan, a volunteer at the center with extensive knowledge of the building a deep-seeded love for its mechanics and the arts. Alan was on his way out but he couldn't pass up the opportunity to take another group around the center even if the group consisted of just two. He was all apologetic about not being able to get us into Overture Hall on account of Mr. Sedaris.
So he started our tour by unlocking the refurbished Capital Theater. Originally built as a stage for vaudeville performers and silent films, it unfortunately opened just months before Al Jolson sang in the first talkie.
In its most recent conversion the amount of seating was reduced to make for better sound quality and sight lines. The Capitol Theater is this preserved gem inside a very contemporary container designed by the internationally renowned architect, Cesar Pelli. Alan took great relish in showing us details throughout the entire complex along with the stories that elevated our tour to VIP status.
He pointed out the magnificent globe chandeliers in the Capitol Theater that had been constructed by connecting two fixtures from the previous lobby into a single more proportionately appropriate fixture for the auditorium. Alan took us backstage pointing out the twenty-nine trap doors located under the stage and still operational.
He had us look at one of the staircases leading up through the complex that he thought looked like a series of row boats, a perspective we wouldn't have seen if Alan hadn't been there to point it out to us.
He then had us climbing those row boat stairs for a tour through several of the rehearsal halls and the James Watrous Gallery on the top floor.
He ended our tour back on the main floor next to the only plaque dedicated to his paramour "Jerry" Frautschi who's donation of over two hundred million dollars made this dream a reality.
Our last stop as time was creeping up on us was the Wisconsin Historical Society all the way at the end of State Street. The Society is one of the oldest and largest historical societies in the nation. Its collections have been a major source for Ken Burn's civil war and baseball documentaries.
It has also gone through a recent renovation. Beyond its reputation for its collections is its architectural significance.
It's hard not to be impressed with the Society's federal revivalist reading room.
A gallery accessible from the third floor provides the perfect viewing area overlooking the two-story room.
The coffured ceiling includes a series of restored stained glass panels that make looking up as intriguing as sitting at one of the research tables pouring over historic records and documents.
Doors Open has become an annual event in most of the cities that have added it to their social calendars. I'm on board, hoping Madison will do the same. I mean this year we were only able to hit six of twenty-nine. We've still got twenty-three more to go.

Construction of Wisconsin's Third Capitol, 1911
Photograph from Wisconsin Historical Society Archives


  1. My grandfather and great grandfather had a tavern across from the State Capital, Mayer's Tavern. It was laughingly called the "second legislature" as many came for lunch and dinner. I am sitting next to a screen that used to be in the Tavern and separated the ladies section from the gentlemens section. The building now has a Starbucks. I wish I knew where the beautiful carved mahagony bar has gone

  2. Would love to see a picture of the screen. I bet it is really beautiful

  3. Had other committments but really wanted to do this. Historical Soc. Reading Rm. is a stunner. Love the wear on the steps inside the building. Talk about a sense of history.