Oh, the movie they could make of it. The story of the building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace would be Madison as Roman Polanski's Chinatown: shady land deals, illicit sex, bad debt and a whole lot of revenge.
Imagine the trailer.
A shiny red car, the super-styled 810 Cord with a maximum V-8, zooms around the Square. Behind the wheel sits a flamboyant man, well on in years, wearing a porkpie hat and a cape. A smile of pleasure - or is it superiority? arrogance? - passes enigmatically across his lips.
Zoom out to: disgruntled merchants, doctors and lawyers, standing on the sidewalk and following the car with their eyes as it speeds by. "What the hey! Last week he couldn't pay me 25 bucks he owes me for his doctor's bill!"
Cut to: Madison attorney Carroll Metzner, sneaking away from a family vacation at Disneyland to warn Marin County officials against adopting the plans for their new civic center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. "You'd better have a lot of money," Metzner darkly warns the group of stunned officials.
David Mollenhoff and Mary Jane Hamilton's Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace: The Enduring Power of a Civic Vision (University of Wisconsin Press) may be one of the most voluminous histories ever written about the construction of one building, but it's also one of the most consuming. The subtitle makes it seem like a vaguely warm story of perseverance, but it's not; not really. It's a story of how buildings don't get built, how progress is stymied in the trenches, for bad reasons as well as good reasons. But most often for the worst reason: no reason at all.
In a way it's also the story of Madison, or at least one of the stories one needs to know in order to understand the city as it is. It's a story as crucial as James Doty's finagling to get this thin strip of land between two lakes declared the capital. It's a story as significant to the city's self-concept - its own myth - as the anti-war movement of the '60s.
The decades-long squabbling over building some kind of civic auditorium contributed much to the conception of Madison as a place where nothing will ever be allowed to take place without a long, drawn-out fight. Mollenhoff and Hamilton's book makes clear that Madison's squirrelishness has been around for a long time, and its cause is not just a surfeit of sensitivity. In retrospect, it looks more like the old-fashioned way of screwing things up, involving complacency, people hating each others' guts, unsupervised ego and poor planning. One thing that Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace makes clear:
You might say it all started with Doty's coup of placing the state capitol fortuitously, beautifully, on an isthmus between two lakes.
The beauty proved to be both a blessing and a curse. More blessing than curse, certainly. But perhaps Madison has always been a little bit too beautiful for its size - beauty is not inexpensive to support, after all. In the late 19th century, city business leaders pushed to bring factories to the city to generate more jobs and revenue. Others, including UW professor John Olin, thought that Madison should develop as an educational and governmental center that would remain cultured and beautiful, with more parks and "pleasure drives" than smokestacks.
Madison's potential proved a temptation to urban planners such as John Nolen and Ladislas Segoe, who conceived grand master plans for the city, plans befitting its natural beauty but beyond its means - and perhaps somewhat beyond its self-image as a frontier capital. Early on, Nolen encouraged Madison to establish itself boldly as a well-planned model city. Mollenhoff and Hamilton's book depicts the city as a recalcitrant child in its refusal to step up and accept that role.
In fact, Madison's natural beauty often threw a wrench into attempts to plan the city. How could man, after all, improve on what nature had already graced? Why bother?
Consequently Madison has often ended up following the path of least resistance. And whenever there was resistance, the city more often than not ended up following no path at all. Never was that more true than in the battle to build a civic auditorium.
One of the great strengths of Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace is the gathering of reams of information, making it possible to see the various lines of contention before they became hopelessly tangled. From the beginning, before Frank Lloyd Wright ever walked onto the stage, there were two separate agendas.
1) Madison needed a civic auditorium: a site to serve as a meeting place for the community, a place for trade shows and a performing arts space. (This triple use was a conflict itself.)
2) Madison had a grandly situated Capitol and wished to make it even grander by developing the approach from Lake Monona (then called Monona Avenue) as a unified city and county government center, or maybe as a park. The geography was messy, though. Monona Avenue ended in a bluff, preventing an easy connection to the lake.
If Monona Avenue was to be developed as the city center, it only made sense to try to place the auditorium there. It was not, however, the only place the auditorium could be built, and there was a significant push over the years to build at what is now James Madison Park, on Lake Mendota. Both were dramatic sites that took advantage of the lakes.
Given that there were logistical problems with the Monona Avenue site, and that civic leaders couldn't reconcile an exhibition hall and a concert hall, and that only one building was probably going to be financed, and that after the Great Depression hit there wasn't money to build any building at all, it's no wonder Madison did nothing.
In the same way that the city has tended to default to nature in lieu of city planning, the city often defaulted to university facilities rather than building its own. Mollenhoff and Hamilton make the excellent point that the city continued to dally even when the only acoustically suitable venue for music events was the UW Stock Pavilion, the drawbacks of which are legion (banging pipes, concrete seats, peculiar anti-cultural ambiance and That Smell). Even in 1965 Madison was suffering the embarrassment of having no place other than the cow barn for contralto Marian Anderson to sing on her nationwide farewell tour.
The Best City to Live in America was not embarrassed enough, though, to get behind the plans that Frank Lloyd Wright presented in 1938 for a "dream civic center." Many objections could be raised even against a major public building by a world-famous architect who was willing to work for far less than his usual fee because he had a personal interest in the look of the city.
Perhaps the best known of the objections was the argument that the building obliterates the view of the lake for anyone standing on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Another was the ostensible destruction of Law Park, despite the fact that the city had done little to develop the space, which was at times more parking lot than park.
But Monona Terrace opponents of the 1930s, '40s and '50s such as Joe Jackson, Mayor Law and Carroll Metzner objected to the plan for reasons somewhat less tangible than the destruction of the view.
Law was not only the mayor but an architect at a local firm of Law, Law and Potter, a firm that Wright took pleasure in insulting at every opportunity.
Jackson was a fierce proponent of the Lake Mendota site.
And Metzner just didn't like Frank Lloyd Wright. (He actually did, as the book reports, go so far as to travel to Marin County to warn officials there that Wright was bad medicine.) Wright was perceived not only as sexually immoral but as an arrogant deadbeat and a communist.
Not only was Wright vulnerable to attack; so was the site, which, because of its position on the lake, could not be owned by the city without a legal battle with the state, due to dock-line issues (well explained in the book). Wright opponents used these legal battles to stall.
Wright made many sacrifices in the process of designing the building. He did much of the work free of charge for years. When contracts were eventually drawn up he agreed to work for much less than his usual fee. He redesigned the building eight times, and he made many trips to Madison to argue for the building with various governing boards. The fact that Wright couldn't manage to advocate his plans without antagonizing the city ("Madison can't look ahead ten years. It is too provincial, backwater, conventional, highbrow, smug and satisfied") was, however, another stumbling block.
Wright's strength was to see Madison with vision; his flaw was that the vision often overtook practical considerations. In Wright's eye, the building that was eventually to become Monona Terrace always incorporated a panoply of functions, from city and county offices (including the jail!) to railroad depot to community center to art gallery to symphony hall. The 1955 version of the plan is huge, poking into Lake Monona nearly twice as far as any of the other versions, eventually to include storage facilities for 500 boats, basketball and handball courts, two office towers and a 2,000-car parking garage. With its futuristic, spaceships-have-landed look and overwhelming size, the 1955 version seems almost a city-within-a-city, maybe a replacement for, and not an enhancement to, the city that was already here: 1.5 million square feet of building, over twice what we have today.
Mollenhoff says that Wright desperately wanted to design a building that would leave his signature on Madison, his second home. Though Madison was a small city, it built plenty of major public buildings during Wright's tenure as a significant American architect, none of which went to him.
Wright smarted as major Madison commissions were handed to the Chicago firm of Holabird, Root and Burgee. The firm's limited renown can be explained by looking at the buildings they designed- the City-County Building, the Veteran's Administration Hospital and the Forest Products Laboratory. Considering their legacy to the look of the city, Wright's comment to George Harb (finance chair of the Dane County board of supervisors) that the City-County Building was a "nice cereal box" might actually be seen as generous.
The 1955 version of Monona Terrace is Wright's signature writ large, too large; this version of the building does seem to have more to do with pleasing the architect than fulfilling the needs of the client. (His final 1959 plans were more in line with what the city was asking for.) Even Wright's usual direct connection with the natural elements seems to have failed him: He has the parking structure placed between the windows of the building and the lake itself, so that the site's very raison d'être- the magnificent lake views- would be destroyed. Anyone attending a function in the building would have looked out the window and seen a three-story parking ramp. This project became so complex over the years that apparently even Wright became a little lost.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace outlines the complex evolution of the building in sufficient detail for anyone who wants to make an independent decision whether the current building is, as they say, really Wright. The book also clearly shows what made it possible for the building to finally get built as a convention center in the '90s. Focused leadership, a much more savvy conception of how to market the project to the voters, the passing of those who hated Wright on a personal level, and the streamlining of the building's function were all important, but perhaps most important was that time caught up with the project. Madison had finally grown into the big plan.
Mollenhoff and Hamilton do fall prey to the built-building fallacy. That is, because Monona Terrace was the project that was eventually built, it was therefore the correct solution to the problem: The history works backward from that fact. Certainly the opponents to whatever Wright-based plan was in the offing over the years are mildly made the villains of the book, and not much credence is given to the arguments of the convention-center opponents of the early '90s. Maybe that's as it should be; the book is meant to tell the history of this building, not argue for all the versions of other buildings that weren't built.
Even after two years, Monona Terrace already seems as if it's always been sitting there, an inevitable punctuation mark at the end of the skyline. The building shapes the city in a way that no other building save the Capitol itself ever has. That's a testament to Wright's nesting of the structure into not only the existing landscape but the existing cityscape, in this case unusually effective even for Wright. (The Guggenheim Museum is a stunning curiosity as you approach it on Fifth Avenue, but fit in with the upper east side it does not.)
Still, it is only one building. The book's look at William Wesley Peter's Monona Basin project of 1967 (based on Wright's circular concept for the Monona Terrace building) reminds us that Madison still has much unrealized potential. The basin project proposed to develop the lakefront from Turville Point/Olin Park all the way to the foot of King Street at the Blair/Williamson junction. All the functions that Wright had once packed into one building would be spread out along the lake: theater and arts facilities at Olin Park, a three-building complex including a convention center at the Monona Terrace site, and a community center/marina at the east end of Law Park. In addition, Peters recommended increasing the parkland on the lake side and adding fountains and other landscaping.
That Olin/Turville, with its superb view of the downtown, is still yet another underdeveloped city park, with nothing more than a boat launch and a barn in which to hold family reunions, demonstrates again how the city defaults to nature instead of planning a functional greenspace.
Could the state of the lakefront be worse? Sure. But that falls short as an argument for not making it better.
By the end of Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace, one wants Madison to have learned that lesson.