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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fair
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What's so special about Madison?
As the city turns 150, a local historian ponders its personality
The city's personality is the sweet spot of awareness where our understanding of the past overlaps the present.
The city's personality is the sweet spot of awareness where our understanding of the past overlaps the present.

You see it when you fly in or out of the city. You discern it when you drive in from any direction and see the Capitol dome dominating the skyline. You experience it when you stroll State Street, visit the Farmerss' Market, sip beer on the Union Terrace, jog through the Arboretum, meander through Monona Terrace, listen to the Madison Symphony performing in Overture Hall, ride along bicycle trails, or relax in thousands of acres of parks. Live here for a few weeks, experience the city's charms, and boom, it just hits you: Madison is special.

But what makes it so? Is there a Madison essence? It's a question worth asking, especially now, in our sesquicentennial year.

I say Madison is special and, like other places, has a unique "personality." This consists of the qualities that emerged earliest, lasted longest and are still influencing our behavior today. I saw these elements in fits and starts when I researched Madison: A History of the Formative Years in the early 1970s, and then, later, in the process of writing, the mosaic came together in a compelling, coherent pattern.

Produced by the cumulative experience of living together, a city's personality produces a cluster of unique, persistent and recognizable qualities. I am not making this up. Put two pendulum clocks on a shelf and soon their pendulums will swing to and fro in perfect unison. Physicists call this entrainment, based upon the phenomenon of resonance. Living in a city has a similar effect on people.

A city's personality will slowly change over time. It is in flux today, and it will continue to evolve tomorrow. It is the sweet spot of awareness where our understanding of the past overlaps the present. If we suddenly forgot our past, Madison would start to change in worrisome ways. That's because a city's personality can be swept away by apathy, arrogance, cynicism and, especially, by ignorance.

So what are the qualities that constitute Madison's personality? I count nine. All can be traced to a succulent aha moment.

In 1829, James Duane Doty, a federal judge, stood atop an abrupt eight-story hill where St. Marys Hospital is now located. (Mound Street is the only reminder of this dramatic, now vanished, topographic feature.) From there, he looked out over a slender, lake-bounded isthmus. Seven years later, he walked into a hastily constructed hall in Belmont where the first territorial Legislature was in session to pitch as territorial capital a fetching paper town called Madison City.

Session accounts suggest Doty mixed bravado with superlatives. It was, he said, exactly halfway between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, the part of the territory with the richest soil. The city site is a rare isthmus bounded by two sprawling lakes. A hill dominates the waistline of this isthmus, a perfect location for the Capitol surrounded by a spacious square. The site was glorious, distinctive and prestigious -- the best possible place for the territorial capital.

In November 1836, the Legislature awarded Doty the prize, a decision that established the first two elements of Madison's personality.

1. Political

To be selected as the capital of the Wisconsin Territory was a big deal. Civic leaders crooned about being the epicenter of state law and legislation and prattled about kinship to the ancient Greek solons.

Madisonians learned to think politically, to attune their ears to political nuance. They participated in and sometimes spearheaded the great debates that coursed through the statehouse. Newspapers, then little more than partisan shills, fed this appetite. Politics transformed the city's leaders into shrewd lobbyists, legislation drafters and policy wonks.

Being focused on things legislative was not just smart business; it was also essential to keep the capital in Madison. That was because developers proposed 19 capital sites, so when Madison won the sweepstakes, there were 18 instant and very sore losers out there. Several made aggressive and sustained efforts to relocate the capital.

Soon, Madisonians' interest in politics went beyond the Legislature to other levels of government. A citizen might help elect an alderman (all were men then), but the next thing you'd know, he'd be taking on national issues, writing an op-ed piece about that lout Lincoln. (Lincoln lost Madison by huge margins both times he ran for president.) Does this pattern sound familiar?

2. Beauty-conscious

From Doty's victory came an appreciation of nature's lovely gifts: the hourglass isthmus, the crystal-clear lakes hugging its sides, the gentle, glacially sculpted hills, and the picturesque mix of woods and prairie. Read pioneer accounts and you will vicariously experience the delight of those who first glimpsed the city.

In 1854, Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune, took one of his trips west to see the nation unfurling. Madison, he wrote, "has the most magnificent town site of any inland city in the West." Accounts like this established Madison's reputation as an enchantress, a professional beauty.

Madisonians were exceedingly proud about their city's natural beauty, but their attitude was driven more by duty than vanity. After all, most civic leaders were Yankees, inheritors of the Puritanical urge to refine God's creation. To build a city of great beauty agitated generations of leaders. They worked hard and long to make Madison elegant, amassing 5,000 acres of parks as well as miles of public shoreline and scenic carriage drives.

As the city grew, this appreciation of beauty was extended to the built environment. It's why we have an urban design commission that expects excellence, a plan commission that eschews ugliness, ordinariness and big boxes, and a sign ordinance that insists on what's tasteful and subdued. It's why the landmarks commission directs property owners to replace porch railings with correct period design. And it's why most projects that make it through this commission-lined gauntlet are so good looking.

It was no accident that Madison was the first city in the country to use zoning to achieve an esthetic end. Upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1921, John Nolen's height limit on all buildings surrounding the Capitol forever insured that the Capitol dome would dominate the skyline.

On walks through town, I still marvel that Madison has managed to remain so beautiful for so long. I credit this powerful, historically grounded appreciation of beauty.

3. Brainy

From the day in 1836 that Madison was selected as the territorial capital, Doty and a handful of Madison leaders conspired to make Madison the home of the University of Wisconsin. Twelve years later, the territory became a state, and legislators gave Madison the coveted prize. This was hardly a ripe plum falling into a fortuitously outstretched hand. It was a display of shrewd lobbying by Madison leaders, an example of the first personality quality I noted.

Now Madison would be a cerebral city, a place where the display of intelligence was legal, encouraged and a source of button-bursting pride. Leaders were thrilled by the prospect of Madison becoming the Athens of the West or even the Oxford of America.

The university pumped intellectual electricity in every nook and cranny and made the town crackle. Citizens jammed halls to hear professors debate Darwin's theory, the need to regulate railroads, and dozens of other subjects. Professors were lionized, their comings and goings duly noted in the papers.

Neighborhood literary clubs sprang up. Members of the Woman's Club discussed Dante. Churches sought highly educated, articulate ministers because there were so many professors in the pews. Madison's public schools stepped up their curriculum to prepare graduates for admission to the university. This is the historic reason Madison's schools became so good so early.

The transforming effects of the university are still evident. We have one of the nation's highest concentrations of people with college and advanced degrees. On a per-capita basis, people here buy more books than just about anywhere else. That Madison, a city of just 217,000, has nearly 40 bookstores including four superstores -- two Borders and two Barnes & Nobles -- surely confirms our bibliophilia.

Add the art shows, film festivals and the ability of anyone over 65 to audit most university courses, and it's clear that Madison is unambiguously brainy.

4. Multi-talented

From the time Madison became the state capital and the home of the university, something clicked in civic leaders' minds. Madison was a whiz kid who could be become great and famous in many ways.

And why not? Still other glorious futures beckoned. For example, nine railroad tracks entered the city from almost every cardinal point on the compass, an asset that allowed Madison to become a Northern resort, a high-tech factory town, a stop on the transcontinental railway, and a place for a one-night stand for the Chicago Symphony when it traveled to Minneapolis.

In the last 10 years, Madison has garnered top national ranking in dozens of categories: the best small city, the best city for quality of life, the best place for bicycling, the best place for business and careers, and on and on. I rest my case.

5. Exemplary

With so many futures beckoning, the trick was to select the best ones. All of this fed the Yankee urge to make Madison a model city for the state, the nation, even the world. Madison was a city on a hill, and leaders seldom forgot it. This powerful fact, a sharp stick that kept poking them in the ribs, triggered discussions about the city's high destiny.

Today, destiny seems too theological, but for many years the term was used without embarrassment or apology. Ignore this historic urge to be exemplary and you will miss Madison's longest, most deeply felt and most fundamental perception of itself.

Today, we talk about our biotech future, technology transfer, intellectual property, science parks and Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class. The number of local patent attorneys has exploded in the last 20 years. Today, we have earnest discussions about trolleys and high-speed rail and how they will deliver us from urban sprawl, Beltline crawl and ranch houses all in a row. I say it's the same conversation -- 100 years later.

6. Visionary

Over the years, a remarkable number of Madisonians have incubated big, visionary ideas about how to shape this potential-oozing town. And so have a cavalcade of consultants.

There's a good reason for this. Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, Madison's leaders realized their city Madison required big, high-minded, broad-shouldered visions of what could be. Why? Because such plans embody alluring ideals, encourage deeper thinking, use longer time frames, and spin out all-important consequences. Besides, big visionary plans are more exciting, more inspiring and more memorable.

Doty started the vision thing with his audacious paper town. Then came Leonard Farwell and his dream of a great metropolis, backed by his brilliant entrepreneurial talents. Two little-known developers, George Delaplaine and Elisha Burdick, declared a winsome vision of Madison as a Northern resort, building an elegant spa in what is now Olin Park.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, UW Presidents Thomas C. Chamberlin (1887-1892) and Charles Kendall Adams (1892-1903) reinvented the university and coaxed unprecedented money from the Legislature. The result was a great boom on the hill. During the 1890s, civic leader extraordinaire John Olin dazzled contemporaries with his visions of big-city parks and rustic pleasure drives, and then in his own inimitable way made them all happen.

Next came John Nolen, who placed Madison in the front ranks of the urban planning movement with his 1909 vision, Madison, A Model City. Madison, he asserted, is a world-class city like Rio de Janeiro, Versailles, Weimar, Lucerne and Geneva. When the nation's preeminent urban planner tells you this, it's hard to get your hat back on. Flip through the Nolen plan and you will hear its sirens singing. Even today.

Little-known Charles E. Brown, Wisconsin's first preservationist, laid out a pioneering vision for saving Madison's Indian mounds; his work is the primary reason Madison preserved more effigy mounds than anywhere else in the state. Joe Jackson, director of the Chamber of Commerce in the 1930s through 1950s, led visionary crusades for James Madison Park, Warner Park, the Veteran's Hospital and the Arboretum.

Then there is Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace, a concept so far beyond doable when unveiled in l938 that it was politely called "the dream civic center." And the Marquette Neighborhood Association's 1970 vision for a great Central Park in the old East Isthmus railroad yard. And Jerry Frautschi's magnificent Overture complex and Pleasant Roland Frautschi's Concerts on the Square.

Dozens more beg for inclusion.

If ever a city required big, resolute visions to reach its lofty potential and nourish its soul, it is Madison, Wisconsin. The proof is in the implementation. Show me a city where so many big dreams became reality.

7. Contrary

You expect an acrid whiff of anti-materialism in a university town, but in Madison it was more pervasive. Even a well-traveled professor's wife was shocked by its virulence when she moved here in 1896. Said this woman, "No where have I seen less respect shown for the Almighty Dollar as in Madison."

For about 50 years after the Civil War, Madison's newspaper editors led a spirited crusade to make Madison a factory town. It was the only way to make the city grow, they argued. However, they were outmatched and outgunned by a well-organized and articulate group of professors and professionals who deplored the idea.

Yes, one writer said, Madison could "darken her skies with the smoke of countless furnaces, and cover her vacant lots with long rows of tenement houses...." What a pity this would be, the writer continued, especially when "so few towns...can become beautiful and learned."

Another form of contrariness was opposition to population growth. Remember, everywhere else in the country, urban leaders worshiped the Great Growth God. Not in Madison. Here the lust for growth was viewed as a disease.

While the rest of the country was marching to the brassy trumpets of industrialism, Madison leaders were listening to the stringed sounds of culture, beauty and scholarship, and were absolutely delighted to be out of step with the rest of the country on these matters. Simply put, Madison's professional community liked the city the way it was: clean, quiet, cerebral, touristy and small.

Do we still see contrariness in Madison? Does the Yahara River still flow through the isthmus? At times, this contrariness can be counterproductive -- arguing for the sake of argument. But more often than not, this contrariness is an expression of earnest concern about a very special city.

8. Civically active

Here's a question for you: What happens when you populate a drop-dead-beautiful town with highly educated, relatively affluent citizens? The answer is organized frenzy. That's because participation in civic affairs goes up with education and affluence, and because more people will run to the rescue of a pretty town.

If you don't believe me, read this newspaper's Annual Manual, and you will see that the number of organizations here nearly equals the number of people. And that does not include the city's 120 neighborhood associations, surely a record for a city our size. Civic activism is one of Madison's most charming personality components.

9. Progressive

No event left a larger and more extensive impact on our city's personality than progressivism. Nationally, this was an avalanche of reforms enacted between 1900 and 1920 -- responses to problems created by rapid urbanization and industrialization. And no state did more to advance progressive reforms than Wisconsin. In fact, one can argue that Wisconsin's progressivism was invented in Madison.

Wisconsin became a national model, a "laboratory of democracy." Journalists and government officials flocked to Madison to behold this yeasty partnership in action.

It all started with the teachings of UW President John Bascom (1864-1887), who urged his students "to devote themselves to...the public welfare." Then, several years later, two of his most talented students rose to occupy the top jobs in the state, and created a new paradigm of societal progress. The former students, Gov. Robert Marion La Follette (1902-1906) and UW President Charles Van Hise (1903-1916), achieved this feat by using university knowledge to solve state problems, a partnership we call the Wisconsin Idea.

The central idea of progressivism was that government should be a force for good and that it was the only institution that could offset the power of the private sector. Lurking in that idea was a loud, ticking noise: the assumption that government had to grow and provide more services to more people. For example, Madison needed new employees to inspect housing, test milk for tuberculosis and provide recreation programs for the poor. Taxpayers quickly paid the price. Between 1900 and 1920, when the city's population doubled, the annual city budget increased by 17 times.

Thank heaven city government has not grown that fast since, but the underlying mainspring of this idea is still coiled and full of latent energy: belief in the uplifting power of local government reform. Recent examples include inclusive zoning, smoking bans and the city-based minimum wage.

Progressive writers made frequent reference to the public interest, the common welfare and the popular will. And state commissions throttled rip-off rates charged by big corporations such as railroads and utilities. Today, this community consciousness is evident in the many government agencies whose mission is to serve the public interest, including the community development authority, public works, public health, planning and development.

Still another progressive legacy is fair access to government. Wisconsin ramped up citizen power with bills allowing direct primaries, recalls and referenda. Other state laws removed odious practices from local politics. For example, the 1911 Corrupt Practices Act stopped the tradition of giving voters rides to the polls and beer and cigars afterwards.

These progressive reforms and many others made local government accessible, and, as a bonus, cleaner and fairer. Today, this vision is everywhere apparent. City government meetings are posted and publicized, many are televised, and the city has a fabulous Web site. Access to government has never been easier and more open. Of course, not all citizens take advantage of this, but that is another matter.

Progressivism also placed a heavy emphasis on inclusivity, a nostalgic effort to return to the good old days when society was simple and everybody knew everybody. Brick-and-mortar components included neighborhood houses and public school auditoriums. This is why the official name for Wright's statement at the end of Martin Luther King Boulevard is the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. And why we do Dane Dances on the Terrace rooftop.

A final tradition from progressivism is the service imperative. It was no accident that the Rotary Club of Madison was formed in 1913 at the height of the reform movement. Nor was it a fluke that in 1913 the Association of Commerce, the predecessor of today's Chamber of Commerce, placed civic service on a par with business development. Today, we have about 40 service clubs in metropolitan Madison and hundreds of service-oriented nonprofits.

This progressive legacy is high-octane stuff that still fuels our quest for societal reform by using government as the agent, seeking the community good, insisting on fair access, finding ways to ensure inclusivity, and making service to others a priority.

So there you have my take on Madison's essence, nine qualities distilled from our history that form our city personality. These are the qualities that have guided and sustained Madison for the longest time. These are the elements that allow us to recognize the Madison in Madison.

Make no mistake; this swirl of unique, recognizable and persistent qualities has consequences. This personality flips minds into political-think, sensitizes eyes to beauty, celebrates the cerebral life, seeks multi-talented futures, delights in exemplary destinies, crafts alluring visions, delivers fanfares for contrarian predilections, whistles a happy tune when residents are transformed into activists, and, finally, plays "Ode to Joy" when progressive values pervade lives.

If you experience these things -- and I hope you do -- know that it's that Madison personality working you over. It's why living in Madison has always been a demanding place to live. May it ever be so!

David Mollenhoff is the author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years and co-author of Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace: The Enduring Power of a Civic Vision.

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