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Landmark Madison Municipal Building suffered neglect before renovation

Madison Municipal Building basement before renovation

Before a $30.2 million renovation, as seen in this photo from 2014, Planning Division employees worked in dated cubicles in the lower level of the Madison Municipal Building. The space is now transformed with contemporary work spaces and more natural light. 

Through 90 years, the Madison Municipal Building has seen an evolution in use, decades of neglect and, ultimately, recognition that it was a building worth saving.

Designed under U.S. Treasury Department supervising architect James Wetmore in the neoclassical revival style and built between 1927 and 1929, the building was initially used as a federal courthouse and a post office. It was the first piece of a grand scheme by renowned urban planner John Nolen to turn the street into a civic boulevard between the state Capitol and Lake Monona.

The city acquired the building in 1979, making significant renovations between then and 1982, including gutting the first floor and basement and replacing steel frame windows on lower floors that were incompatible with the original design.

The majority of the exterior limestone was in good condition, and its structure is sound, but the building had maintenance challenges and wasn’t designed for its current use. The Planning Division was accessed by a maze of corridors, with the director of Planning, Community and Economic Development’s office sitting windowless in the center of the basement.

The boilers, chiller, cooling tower, fire alarm system, main electrical service and upper-floor wiring all were past their life expectancy. The building’s masonry mortar joints were deteriorated, remaining original steel windows degraded, interior lighting was inefficient and interior spaces had poor air circulation and looked tired. Over the years, renovations hid elements of the first floor, including the original main lobby and the original courtroom on the second floor.

Then, finally, the seeds of rebirth.

In 2010, then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz launched a planning effort that focused on the Municipal Building block and the block that holds the crumbling Government East Parking garage across the street, as well as a 12-block area southeast of the Capitol.

1929 ode to the Madison Municipal Building

This pair of full-page ads taken out by Madison-area businesses appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on Feb. 15, 1929, the day the new $1 million Federal Building and Post Office was dedicated. The building would later become the Madison Municipal Building.

A year later, Mayor Paul Soglin and the City Council removed a public market from the mix but continued the planning effort and named the project Judge Doyle Square after James E. Doyle, the federal judge and father of former Gov. Jim Doyle, whose courtroom was in the Municipal Building for years.

Soon after, a detailed report called the redevelopment of the two blocks “possibly as complex a project as the city has ever undertaken.”

The redevelopment has unfolded in two stages — the $30.2 million Municipal Building renovation, and the $186 million private/public Judge Doyle Square project, which is slated to bring a hotel, apartments, retail and commercial space and over 1,000 parking spaces on a site behind the Municipal Building and where Government East now stands. The latter project’s massive underground parking garage is now being built.

“You have to maintain city facilities,” Soglin said of the Municipal Building. “That includes work space for city staff. I would have preferred spending the money someplace else — the public market and community centers. That was not to be.”

The city had to cut back some work and rebid the Municipal Building project after initial bids for construction were roughly 50 percent higher than original estimates. Ultimately, the city paid $22 million for construction, $3.8 million for professional costs, $1.8 million to temporarily relocate employees, and $2.5 million for furnishings, fixtures and equipment. The city expects to finish under budget.

Meanwhile, rising construction costs are forcing major complications and changes to the Judge Doyle Square project.

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