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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Lost Madison: A Facebook page revives the city's magical past
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State Street, pictured here in 1935, hasn't always been a pedestrian thoroughfare.
Credit:Wisconsin Historical Society

If the number of construction crews in town is any indication, Madison is finally figuring out what it wants to be — or at least how it wants to look — in the 21st century. Sometimes change is excruciating, and other times we only notice it in retrospect.

Just ask Chris Wadsworth, founder of Lost Madison, a Facebook page that shares sights and stories from earlier versions of our fair city. He chuckles when I mention the onslaught of development along East Washington. Though he's a connoisseur of local history, he admits he's not attuned to the city's current metamorphosis.

In the 1970s, when Wadsworth, 46, was a kid, no one would have guessed that this area would become a sought-after spot for condos and music venues.

"The stretch of East Washington around Breese Stevens Field, it was a lot of residential properties on both sides," he recalls. "There were some warehouses and an old dairy building, but I wouldn't call it happening. It was very sleepy."

Wadsworth doesn't lament the neighborhood's evolving identity. Instead he expresses ambivalence.

"As somebody who loves history and loves the way Madison was, I'm torn," he says. "But working on Lost Madison has taught me that change is always happening, and that people are always complaining about it."

Lost Madison is a chance to put a positive spin on a sometimes-painful process. Plus, it's a way for Wadsworth to connect with his roots. Now a resident of the Washington, D.C., area, he moved away from Madison years ago. But he never stopped seeing it as a magical place.

The view from the Magiscope

Though Lost Madison is just two years old, it's grown into a community of more than 17,200 nostalgia seekers. It began with a quintessentially Madison topic: brat shops.

"I started Lost Madison around the time I was looking up the brat house that was where State Street Brats is now," Wadsworth explains. "I found an old postcard and decided to ask some people I grew up with, a few [of whom] still live in Madison, if they remembered the place, and it took on a life of its own."

These days, Lost Madison is an active discussion forum where people ask for help remembering the names of places they used to visit and identifying features in old photos. One day a tantalizing question appeared on the site: "Anybody else remember the magical telescope in Manchester's [department] store? You peered into the eyepiece and you could see all the way to inside Santa's workshop at the North Pole!"

Wadsworth took this as a cue to do some detective work. He found part of the answer in the Wisconsin Historical Society's photo collection. A single image, it was as tantalizing as the question itself.

"It showed a parka-clad assistant helping a little girl look into a massive telescope while a line of eager kids and weary parents waited behind her," Wadsworth told readers.

Few details accompanied the picture, so he turned to newspaper archives for further information. He discovered that the Magiscope was used for a single Christmas season, in 1939. The store's owner, Harry Manchester, patented the invention, which used a clever arrangement of mirrors and a smaller telescope to give viewers the illusion that they were observing a faraway scene. But the North Pole the kids glimpsed was just a floor above the store.

"It's one of my favorite things I've posted on Lost Madison," Wadsworth says. "Finding that patent and sharing it with the gentleman who asked about the Magiscope was a rewarding moment, and one that touched me deeply."

From Aladdin's Castle to Rennebohm's

Though Lost Madison features photos from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the bulk of its images focus on the 1950s through the 1980s. One of the most popular is a picture of Aladdin's Castle, a chain of arcades found in shopping malls in the 1970s and '80s.

"There was one at East Towne and one at West Towne when the videogame craze really took off in the late '70s and early '80s," Wadsworth recalls. "This was before videogames were in homes, so going there was a big deal."

Though Aladdin's Castle was an important part of Wadsworth's childhood — and his Donkey Kong fixation — he's aware that readers who grew up in other eras want to revisit their youth as well. Often he's able to find photos that connect people from several generations. A number of them are of Rennebohm's pharmacies, the first of which opened in 1912. At one point, the Madison area had about 20 Rennebohm's locations, which employed approximately 900 people.

"Rennebohm's is a place that almost anyone who grew up in Madison in the '40s through the '80s will remember. It was a drugstore and a dime store, and each location had a diner attached to it, so you'd stop in there with your parents or grandparents for pie and coffee, or a sundae. It was part of the ritual of growing up," Wadsworth says.

It was a bittersweet day when Walgreens purchased Rennebohm's, he adds.

"It's not the kind of thing you're going to cry over, or that people protested, but it was the loss of an element of many people's childhood," he notes.

Wadsworth says places like Rennebohm's are important for younger Madisonians to know about as well.

"I'm a firm believer in knowing what came before you and understanding what Madison was like in earlier times, what the movie theaters and cars and parks were like, what the issues of the day were," he says. "I think it can make you appreciate what we have today more."

This is why Wadsworth devotes so much energy to research: to engage readers by making history come alive.

"That's what separates Lost Madison from other nostalgia sites," he says. "We try to put a little more context with the photos. If people have a sweet moment where they remember something pleasant from their youth or learn something cool about Madison's history, I've done my job."

Levity and tragedy

The city's past isn't all sunshine and rainbows, though, and Wadsworth doesn't want to give the impression that it ever was. While Lost Madison often brings about warm, fuzzy feelings, it doesn't shy away from the sad and scandalous. Wadsworth has posted vintage ads from the Visions strip club and photos from the 1967 protests of Dow Chemical on the UW campus. The most poignant image might be a photo of a voracious fire at Bascom Hall in 1916. The building's historic dome was lost, but it won't be forgotten thanks to the website. Neither will other community institutions reduced to ashes, such as the East Wilson music venue O'Cayz Corral, which hosted concerts by the Replacements, Violent Femmes and other legends.

Lost Madison addresses how social mores have changed, too. One photo from 1935, of a girls' physical education class at West High, underscores the strides women have made in athletics, academics and more. Wearing gym suits one commenter describes as "ghastly," six girls perform silly-looking exercises unlikely to make them break a sweat.

Another intriguing photo shows a May Day celebration on Bascom Hill, with a huge crowd and towering maypoles, sometime between 1915 and 1919. One astute commenter notes that "this would not happen now. Too much paranoia over non-Christian rituals and too many people with their faces stuck in their iPads and smartphones." Other comments are fun examples of contemporary humor, ranging from "This would make a great flash mob" to "I think I was a freshman that year."

Quite a few Lost Madison images come from gathering places for the grade-school set, the kinds of spots where laughs are plentiful. There's a 1949 photo of a toboggan run in Olbrich Park and evidence that a carousel existed at Vilas Park from 1958 to 1968, before the children's wing of the Henry Vilas Zoo took its place. (A new carousel debuted at the zoo in 2006.)

Wadsworth fondly remembers a part of the zoo where kids could feed the seals.

"You'd put a coin in a vending machine, open a door and take out a packet of fish, then climb a little ladder and throw the fish to the seals. The fish reeked, and the zoo wasn't as safety-minded as it is now, but it's such a neat memory," he says.

La crème de la crème of old-school fun must have been Peppermint Park, which had a roller coaster, a trampoline, a go-kart track, a Ferris wheel and a steam-powered train. The park opened in 1960 and closed in 1969.

Transportation and commercialization

Lost Madison is a treasure trove of vintage logos and typography, especially from brands that were once headquartered locally. A few months ago, Wadsworth partnered with Bygone Brand, a T-shirt company from Rockford, Ill. He contributes ideas and does some of the marketing, while the founders make shirts featuring the logos of bygone Madison businesses like Red Dot Potato Chip Company and Moon Fun Shop.

Wadsworth is stoked to see Kellys Hamburgers immortalized on a T-shirt.

"Kids from the '70s might remember getting a hand puppet of the Kellys mascot, Pickle Pete," he says. "Kellys is one of those places that couldn't compete as shopping became more mall- and chain-focused."

Early ads and maps from area malls are also an excellent source of information about businesses that have gone the way of the dodo. Filled with boat-like cruisers from the 1950s and '60s, Lost Madison's 1965 picture of Westgate Mall's parking lot reminds us how urban sprawl led to more driving and a desire for one-stop shopping centers.

Likewise, photos of the Capitol Square and State Street are good indicators of Madison's feelings about urbanism and tradition at different points in time. One shot from July 1971 marries two important themes about history and change. The Gates of Heaven synagogue is being hoisted onto a platform for a journey from its original location on West Washington to its current home at James Madison Park. This architectural gem from 1863 was nearly demolished that summer. After all, nothing's sacred. But it received a new life when a local history buff successfully campaigned to save it.

In a way, that's what Wadsworth wants to do, too: keep beautiful artifacts of Madison's past from fading away.

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