Library Mall: a time before construction
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Library Mall: a time before construction

Infused with tradition, Library Mall's iconic history paves a path for future generations of students

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Long before it became merely a space to store equipment for what some may believe is a perpetual cycle of construction on campus, Library Mall flourished as an inspiring landscape with the power to converge struggle and companionship and, at the end of the day, collect and embody the Wisconsin spirit.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison procured the final parcel of land comprising what was then called “Lower Campus” in 1889, marking the origin of the modern boundary enclosing what is now Library Mall.

Since then, each generation of students has adapted the space to serve its unique wants and needs. The lawn has been the site of celebration, rivalry, military trainings and bitter displays of political unrest throughout its rich 124-year history. However, the only memory of Library Mall available to nearly every undergraduate on campus today is one of nuisance and lumbering construction equipment.

“It’s kind of astonishing now that ...entire classes have come, and not seen Library Mall when it’s not under construction,” said David Null, the director of University Archives and Records Management.

Possibly the most noticeable absence on campus is the iconic yet controversial Hagenah Fountain. After opening in 1958 in honor of famed Library Mall donor and designer William Hagenah, the fountain became a revered symbol of the university.

Hagenah provided $16,500 in 1956 to build the fountain and the design that would come to characterize Library Mall, according to a cultural landscape report from UW-Madison’s Department of Facilities Planning and Management. Null said Hagenah also penned the inscription on the fountain: “Teachers and books are the springs from which flow the waters of knowledge.”

Although now a staple of Library Mall, the fountain’s arrival succeeded a lengthy, embittered approval process, as did the diagonal sidewalk pattern so familiar to contemporary guests of the park. The axial sidewalks were originally proposed in 1900, but did not show up until 1955 in conjunction with the central fountain.

Students enrolled at UW-Madison in the early 20th century played an integral part in delaying the development of Library Mall. According to the report, the first recorded protest on Library Mall occurred in 1904, when students gathered to oppose repurposing their beloved athletic and social quarters for mere aesthetic purposes.

That lineage of social demonstration would come to define a lofty portion of Library Mall’s history, peaking during America’s involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s. Gary Brown, director of Campus Planning and Landscape Architecture, attributed much of the seemingly endless design controversy to a general fear of change, which he said is still present when planning for the future of Library Mall.

“I think that’s sort of where the controversy comes in,” Brown said. “Because we’re trying to change something that’s so iconic and so near and dear to everybody’s heart.”

However, he also pointed out a tendency of people to forget Library Mall’s history as one of evolution, and that it has only looked the way it is often thought of for approximately 60 years.

Before Hagenah’s time, a less-developed Library Mall positioned itself more as an athletic and entertainment arena than a scenic destination. From 1890 until 1946, students were permitted to use the field for sporting events, allegedly to the dismay of the Historical Society. According to the report, complaints of wayward baseballs striking library visitors and breaking windows of surrounding buildings presented cohabitation problems. Library Mall’s capacity also qualified it as an ideal venue for a long-ago-severed UW-Madison tradition known as the bag rush.

During bag rush, members of the freshman and sophomore classes faced off in a friendly battle reminiscent of Capture the Flag. Fifteen burlap sacks were placed even distances apart along a line that divided Library Mall down the middle. Each side would charge the line and fight for possession of the bags. Whichever class collected the majority was declared the victor and a rambunctious celebratory parade down State Street ensued, often resulting in Madison Police Department involvement. Billy club-wielding juniors and seniors supervised the activity.

Upperclassmen in the first two decades of the 20th century asserted their superiority in other ways as well. According to an online account by Null, freshmen at the time were required to identify as underclassmen by donning green beanie hats when roaming campus in the fall and spring, although they were permitted to wear other hats throughout winter for safety reasons.

Freshmen Badgers were also instructed to touch a red button on their beanies when addressing upperclassmen. Those who failed to comply were subject to Student Court-sanctioned punishments, which included singing university songs on Bascom Hill or being thrown into Lake Mendota.

The practice remained informal until 1909, when student government mandated the behavior; a decision in line with a trend of ritualistic hazing sweeping campuses at the time. According to Ohio State University online records, University of Iowa was the only current Big Ten school not to have observed a beanie custom. However, women at UW-Madison, who accounted for approximately one third of the student population at the time, were exempt.

At the end of each spring semester, Library Mall would transform from a place of underclass strife to a scene of glory known as Cap Night, where outgoing freshman would burn their beanies in the middle of Library Mall to celebrate their initiation.

The Student Court terminated the bag rush and beanie traditions in 1923, and Cap Night expired soon after. Student use of Library Mall for such large social gatherings and athletic proceedings tapered off throughout the 1930s but did not cease entirely until the space was needed to meet an increased demand for campus facilities after Word War II.

According to the report, enrollment was so high post-war, due in part to the G.I. Bill making higher education more accessible, that buildings designed to accommodate 1,800 were serving 18,000. The university responded by temporarily erecting seven Quonset huts on Library Mall in 1946 to use for lectures and as extra library space until permanent amenities could replace them. Memorial Library opened in the fall of 1953, but the Quonset huts remained until 1954. It was not until they were torn down that Library Mall could be developed into what it is today.

However, that did not signify an end to the tradition of students seizing the land to serve their own interests. Particularly, Brown said, Library Mall became a hub for campus rioting beginning in the 1960s.

“There was all kinds of things and spaces for them to gather and that became sort of this beating heart of the campus,” Brown said. “And that’s where social unrest sort of originated, and it sort of gained that notoriety over time, and in fact today that’s where a lot of things happen.”

Around the same time political dissatisfaction was reaching its heyday in the early 1970s, a judge’s ruling in favor of two defendants charged with selling unlicensed goods on Library Mall legitimized the right for community members to use the space accordingly. Those traditions have carried into the present, evidenced by vendors selling food and other trinkets on Library Mall every afternoon, albeit on a smaller scale, according to Null.

For these reasons and more, the United States Department of the Interior admitted Library Mall to the National Register of Historic Places Sept. 12, 1974. Separately, the university designates Library Mall as one of about 15 cultural landscapes on campus, which Brown said he and his colleagues consider heavily during a period of redesign.

Brown also said the university plans to modernize Library Mall in the coming years, but only to widen the walkways as well as to add some additional lighting, more comfortable seating and more user-friendly bicycle parking. He also said the university intends to completely rebuild the fountain due to concerns about its infrastructural condition. Most of the updates will be undetectable to the casual patron, Brown said, out of respect for the history of the land.

“If we were to blow up the Memorial Union, you know, that would cause a lot of controversy I would think,” Brown said. “And it’s just not something we’re going to do with Library Mall either. I think we need to keep that history and that sense of iconography for that space on campus.”

While Library Mall’s recent designation has been as a storage space for equipment needed to renovate Memorial Union, redesigning the lawn is forthcoming. Upgrading Library Mall will come on the heels of the city’s remodeling of the 700 and 800 blocks of State Street, set to begin this spring. However, the university is not anticipating being able to touch Library Mall before wrapping up the Memorial Union project, tentatively planned for 2017. That is not to say, however, that current and future students will not be able to enjoy the space so many of their predecessors did.

Brown said Memorial Union construction is on schedule to soon allow for a reduction of some of the equipment currently parked on the mall. The Hagenah fountain is also expected to reopen this semester for a few years until the overhaul. At least for now, it seems the dissent that ensnared so much of Library Mall’s rise to prominence has settled, so it can once again become a destination to unite Badgers past, present and future.

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