Wisconsin Historical Society
Of course Jerry Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland would have a greater impact on downtown Madison than any other couple. The Frautschi family has been changing the face of Madison for more than 100 years.
Jerry's spectacular trifecta of projects -- donating the $205 million Overture Center, developing the 100 block of State Street and financing the Edgewater Hotel expansion -- has transformed downtown Madison more than anything since Mayor Paul Soglin took the cars off State Street in his first term in office. Rowland's contributions -- creating Concerts on the Square and Pleasant Company -- have also been fundamental.
These are just the latest manifestations of the family with the greatest sustained civic involvement, business success and philanthropy in Madison's history.
"As a young boy, I did not realize that my parents or family were different from my friends' families," Jerry wrote in a recent email interview. "I did know that my parents were involved in many activities within Madison and the university, but I assumed that that was normal for most people."
"Many activities" is an understatement. It's been a family tradition, extending to Jerry's uncle and back two generations.
Jerry's father, Walter (1901-1997), was one of the biggest men on campus for more than half a century. Most students in the UW class of 1924 listed two or three activities; Walter listed 30, culminating in the senior class presidency. Foreshadowing his career in printing and sales, he was also publications editor for the Badger yearbook, an editor for the Daily Cardinal, and was invited into the best clubs and societies -- all while maintaining grades good enough for the Phi Kappa Phi honor society.
More good works and honors followed in adulthood, including serving as president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association and being named the association's first Alumnus of the Year a decade later, in 1957. Walter also became a trustee of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in 1947, and helped lead the licensing and investment arm of the university until 1988.
Walter's younger brother, Lowell (1905-2000), also left his mark on the university. Among many other activities, he was Phi Kappa Phi, received a campus award for his "power to bring about significant changes in the student life," and served three years on the board of the Student Union, which coordinated student activities before the Memorial Union opened. As Union president in 1927, Lowell ran the campaign that raised $138,000 to build the Union itself, and helped lay its cornerstone. Lowell would later serve extensive terms on the governing and fundraising boards for the Memorial Union.
When he was 86, Walter reflected on the way he and his brother approached life: "I suppose you'd have to admit that both of us were, in our high school and later college career, what you might call activity people, interested in all kinds of things."
Despite Walter's success at Madison High and the UW, Jerry and older brother John took alternate educational avenues. After attending Colorado's private Fountain Valley School (where Jerry won the Colgate Cup for "sportsmanship, loyalty and character," and where the community center bears the family name), they each went elsewhere for college. John graduated in 1951 with a B.A. from Amherst, while Jerry enrolled at the University of Virginia.
But Jerry came home the next year to become a Badger. After a boys' boarding school and a men's university, he explained, "I wanted to go to a coed school."
As Jerry grew up, Walter was rising from salesman for the old Democrat Printing Co. to its presidency, chairing citywide charity drives and logging extensive service on other local and state boards.
Lowell gave up a promising academic career to become a salesman for the family furniture store, rising to the presidency of Frautschi's Inc., the corporation with combined furniture and funeral functions. He was founder and/or president of several health and social welfare organizations that eventually became the United Way of Dane County.
Lowell was the political brother. In the 1940s, he unsuccessfully fought to force the Milwaukee Road to move its freight service out of downtown. In 1951, as McCarthyism raged, he took a public stance against Wisconsin's junior Senator. In the 1960s, he helped defeat a conservative bid to stop the Triangle urban renewal project through a referendum abolishing the Madison Redevelopment Authority.
"They were both wonderful people, but they were different people, too, with different political beliefs," Lowell's daughter Martha said in a recent interview. "Lowell was more liberal, and Walter more business-oriented. But of course they were very congenial, even about that."
Their differences were also evident in their marriages. Walter got married in Paris to a woman whose father was president of a bank, and honeymooned on the continent. Lowell got married in La Crosse to a woman who worked for the president of a bank, and honeymooned on Mackinac Island. "Yes, that's an interesting aspect," Lowell's son, Tim, reflected recently.
Walter's wife, the daughter of Barneveld State Bank founder Jerome John Jones, brought significant financial resources to the family and was a dynamic force in her own right. Also Phi Beta Kappa 1924, Dorothy Jones (1903-2001) traveled solo to China when she was 23 and would later serve as president of the Attic Angel Association and the Madison Civics Club. In 1945, the city paid her $14,000 for nine acres on which to construct the Midvale School, just part of her extensive real estate portfolio.
Grace Clark (1904-1989), a 1928 graduate of UW-Madison, didn't bring money to her marriage to Lowell, but she did bring character. While secretary to a Madison bank president during the Depression, she became aware that a bank that held deposits of her relatives was about to fail. Because the information was privileged, she didn't let her family know. "They were very displeased with her," son Steven Clark Frautschi recalled.
Template for success
One of the first major philanthropic gifts from the Frautschi family came in 1961 when Walter and Dorothy gave 75 acres near Verona -- designated the Jerome Jones Woods after Walter's father-in-law -- to help create the Madison School Forest. Jerry and John made a similar gift in 1988 when they bought (for $1.5 million) the heavily wooded 17 acres formerly known as Second Point, just past Picnic Point, and gave it to the UW in Walter's name. The parcel, with 1,600 feet of Lake Mendota frontage, had long been eyed by developers; its permanent conservancy extends the Lakeshore Path to four miles, from the Union Terrace to Eagle Heights Woods.
Long before Jerry's historic Overture donation in 1998, Walter chaired the committee that raised $1.5 million in 1976 to turn the old Capitol Theater into the Madison Civic Center (and gave $30,000 from his Webcrafters foundation). And long before that, Walter's father, Emil (1871-1959), served on the board of the Madison Civic Music Association and was a sponsor of the Civic symphony and chorus.
Indeed, it was Emil who set the template for success and service. Founder and president of the Madison Fuel Co., president of Frautschi's Inc., he served on the Madison Vocational and Adult Education School Board from 1936 until his death. As president from 1946 on, he championed the $1 million annex that opened in 1950 and is still in use today.
When Jerry was born in 1931, Emil was finishing a two-year stint as president of the Madison Association of Commerce, following a two-year term as president of the Community Union (another predecessor to the United Way), and was four years into a 32-year run as a trustee of the University YMCA.
Asked his "favorite pastime and/or hobby" on a Rotary member questionnaire in the 1940s -- he and Walter were both presidents of the influential club, Lowell and John both directors -- Emil listed "Community Service."
"Kind of a funny thing," Walter reminisced for a UW oral history project in 1987. "I think he was sort of a joiner." In his later years, "he seemed to accept almost anything," Walter said, including the presidency of the Madison Horticultural Society, even though "I don't think he knew a turnip from a radish."
Late in life, Emil explained his motivation: "I made up my mind years ago that my hometown was entitled to two or three hours of my services a day. I know but Madison. It is my home, the home of my father, the home of my boys, and it is little enough that I can give some of my time in an endeavor to make it a good place for everyone."
It all began in 1856 -- the year Madison became a city -- when 17-year-old Christian Frautschi left home in the northern Swiss Alps to become a wandering apprentice cabinetmaker. "He was the wrong son to inherit the family farm, so he learned a trade, which was cabinetmaking," great-grandson Steven C. Frautschi explained in an oral history documenting his career as a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology.
Christian ended up in Paris for three unhappy and unhealthy years, and in 1866, under mysterious circumstances, took a sick brother's place on a boat for America. He wintered with an uncle in Sauk County, then worked with Madison pioneer Darwin Clark (who helped build Madison's territorial capitol in 1837). That's when he met the proprietor of a coffin and cabinetmaking business on South Webster Street. Tired of living "under the authority of others," and feeling it was his "duty and mission to become independent," Christian bought the business, effective April 15, 1869.
After leasing a building downtown, Christian in 1873 bought a three-story stone building at 204 King St., where he worked and lived until his death in 1912. The Frautschis would anchor Madison's first business street for more than a century.
Christian's church was the German Evangelical Association at Hamilton and Pinckney, where the Madison Children's Museum is. That's where he met Elizabeth Kunz (1849-1926). They married in 1870 and had 11 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood.
Their first child, Emil John (1871-1959), wasn't keen on a life of cabinets and caskets, and in his mid-teens set out for Chicago to become a telegraph operator. "He was slightly rough and uneducated, and didn't speak English until he was 16," grandson Timothy, a retired Milwaukee tax attorney, recalled in a recent interview.
But Emil could only find work as a Western Union messenger boy. After six months, he came home to take a trucking job with the Chicago and North Western railroad. He stayed 13 years, rising to depot master, while also working in the furniture store. After he spent two years keeping books for the Gisholt Machine Co., the Wisconsin Telephone Co. recruited him as its local manager. In 1909 Emil cofounded the Madison Fuel Co. with three other men; in 1936, he bought them out and became sole owner.
Like his father, Emil married a woman he met through the German Evangelical church. He had only a grade school education, but Ida Parman, from Mazomanie, graduated from the UW in 1895, then taught Latin and was assistant principal at the Brodhead High School for four years.
While Emil was making his way independently, his younger brothers followed their father. Irving (1881-1941) focused on furniture, while Arthur (1879-1945) became one of the first licensed undertakers in Wisconsin. But when Christian died in 1912, Emil assumed control of the entire enterprise, along with his fuel company duties.
A new Frautschi Furniture store opened at 219 King St. in 1913, with the city's fanciest funeral home -- now Tempest Oyster Bar -- following at 132 E. Wilson in 1929. The family would eventually control 107 feet of frontage on King Street and 176 feet on East Wilson St. The businesses closed in 1978 and 1971, respectively.
Looking back, Lowell didn't seem thrilled with his career choice. "They have been confining years," he acknowledged in an interview with Historic Madison Inc., because "a merchant's work is never done. One cannot close up shop to get away."
Walter had no such restraints, so he and Dorothy became some of the most-traveled Madisonians of the 20th century, taking two lengthy photographic safaris through Africa, visiting Indian villages at the head of the Amazon and flying around the world in 1959.
From client to courtship
Although Madisonians of an earlier age would have associated the Frautschi family with furniture, funerals and fuel, a business not started by a Frautschi -- a printing company -- has proved most important for Madison.
Walter had a simple reason for not entering any of the family's enterprises. "I guess I wasn't interested," he explained in the 1987 UW oral history. "Journalism or writing or something of that sort seemed to appeal to me." So in 1926 he became a salesman for the Democrat Printing Co., founded in 1868. As president, he took the company private in 1959 and renamed it Webcrafters in 1965. John joined the firm in 1955, becoming president on Walter's retirement in 1970; he remains chairman.
Jerry joined the company in 1956. Twenty years later, as sales rep for the Boston-based author and editor Pleasant Rowland, Jerry had to deal with an unexpected delay in printing one of her language-arts programs. Client relations quickly became a whirlwind courtship and marriage. Jerry later invested in Pleasant's American Girl; it was the 1998 sale of the doll company to the Mattel Corp. for $700 million that has financed his recent projects.
Jerry retired in 1997 and sold his interest in Webcrafters to John. He echoes Walter in explaining why his sons, whom he had with first wife Ellen Kayser, all took career paths that led away from the plant on Fordem Avenue. "They had other interests they wanted to pursue," he wrote.
Those interests have been varied. Paul, 52, was a co-owner of Sea Fresh, a fish wholesaler, and Mad Dogs on North Henry Street before opening the Sonic drive-in on University Avenue. Lance, 51, owns a Sunkist-certified lemon ranch in Somis, Calif.
Only Grant, 46, has hewed closely to the family model. President of the Block 100 Foundation, he helped keep the State Street redevelopment project on track when city staff and commissions objected to its proposed private park and razing of a registered landmark. He's also president of the Madison Parks Foundation and, like his grandfather Walter, a former commodore of the Mendota Yacht Club.
"He's a master of logistics, someone who makes things work," says longtime fellow sailor and former Ald. Steve Holtzman, recalling how Grant successfully handled the politically difficult negotiations to extend the yacht club's lease at Burrows Park. "He's a generous guy who doesn't flaunt his good fortune. He's got foresight and exposure to different conditions, so he's great to have on a boat in a storm."
Frank Byrne, president of St. Mary's Hospital, sees similarities between the generations: "He's got a calmness about him " the zen of Jerry."
Although the Frautschis remain disappointed that the city didn't embrace their original vision for State Street, it wasn't the first family initiative to suffer the vagaries of municipal governance. In 1954, Frautschi's Inc. bought a vacant parcel on Speedway Drive for a new funeral home. City planners supported such a use between Resurrection and Forest Hill cemeteries, but neighbors claimed it would psychologically damage area children and got the Plan Commission to reject rezoning.
"This was a jolting experience," Lowell reflected years later.
The rezoning went through in 1958, but the day building permits were issued, neighbors got a court order stopping construction. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1960, and the facility finally opened in the summer of 1961. Frautschi's Inc., sold its funeral operations to the Robert Cress company in 1977.
John, 84, like his brother, Jerry, was active on local boards, as was his late wife, Mary Weston, who died of breast cancer in 1992. Of their three adopted children, son Christopher "Kip" John, is the only member of his generation to follow their grandfather, and is now Webcrafters' vice president for marketing and planning.
Also a current or former member of several boards, Kip Frautschi founded the Madison Country Day School and served on its board until 2006. His older brother, Peter Weston Frautschi, owns the New Urbanism planning and development company Community By Design (Weston Place and Midtown Commons are two recent projects). Daughter Elizabeth has a gardening company in Spring Green.
While Walter's sons have all made Madison their home, none of Lowell's three children have done so.
"They've all done well," Lowell said in his 1988 oral history. Steven, 80, is professor emeritus at Cal Tech; daughters Jennifer and Laura are prominent classical violinists. Timothy, 77, is a retired partner with the Milwaukee law firm Foley & Lardner and a founding board member of American Players Theater. Martha Frautschi Wailes, 73, was in the foreign service, and recently retired as a foreign student adviser at the University of Indiana.
The Frautschi legacy, writ so large in Madison, lives on in small ways as well. Wailes' grandson sleeps in a small bed that Christian Frautschi made on King Street five generations ago.
Stu Levitan is the chair of the city Landmarks Commission, which weighed in on the Block 100 project on State Street.