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Madison's Spring Harbor neighborhood offers a lush lakeshore oasis

Madison's Spring Harbor neighborhood offers a lush lakeshore oasis

From the Take a tour of Madison's neighborhoods series

The Spring Harbor Neighborhood hugs the southwestern shore of Lake Mendota — not just geographically, but culturally, too.

Water is integral to the identity of this quiet, lush oasis on Madison’s West Side. Neighbors swim, kayak and sail off the city beach bearing Spring Harbor’s name. Students at the well-regarded Spring Harbor Environmental Magnet School are immersed in lessons about the natural world.

Longtime residents here expect their streets to be green and homes to be humble. Grassy walkways — built as fire lanes when tiny lake cottages once dotted the shore — lead bathers to the lakefront and the sandy Spring Harbor Beach.

The link between human and water in Spring Harbor goes back thousands of years, as the neighborhood’s two Native American Effigy Mounds attest. Centuries ago, the Ho-Chunk Indians who lived here called the many local springs “Makamai,” or “medicine springs.”

Most of those springs have vanished. Yet even today, there is a healing quality to the Spring Harbor Neighborhood, whose winding streets feel as though they were carved through a forest.

Homes are nestled among old trees. Look across Lake Mendota from here and the view is of treetops, rather than the iconic state Capitol, which dominates the view elsewhere in Madison.

About 2,224 people live in Spring Harbor, a mostly residential area made up of 1950s ranch houses, picturesque lakeshore homes and low-slung apartment buildings. The neighborhood reaches across busy University Avenue to the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad tracks on its southern border.

In this southern section of Spring Harbor, streets with names like Sue Place, Pauline Avenue and Lorraine Drive are lined with small homes, built for veterans returning from World War II. The modest houses are all variations on an architectural theme. Their yards are tidy and unique.

Some sit on the edge of Kettle Pond, a conservation park that from a distance looks like a verdant fairyland.

Large new buildings along University Avenue have altered the feel of Spring Harbor, residents say. The neighborhood association has been known to dig in its heels against buyers proposing to demolish small homes along the lake and replace them with grander structures.

“We don’t want the neighborhood to turn into ‘McMansions,’ tearing down the cottages in the neighborhood and building huge houses. We’re trying to avoid that,” said Ann Sowaske, chair of the Spring Harbor Neighborhood Association’s history committee.

Sowaske is also a member of the 61-year-old Indian Hills Garden Club, named for Spring Harbor’s Indian Hills subdivision. Its 50 members take turns meeting at one another’s homes.

“It’s a very settled neighborhood. Some families have been here for two or three generations,” said Jeanette Tierney, co-president of the garden club. “So people look at their gardens as something that’s going to be here for a long time.”

Aaron Crandall, president of the Spring Harbor Neighborhood Association, moved to the area just a year ago with his wife and young children. He can commute to his job at UW-Madison by bike in about 15 minutes, he said.

Crandall’s family is among those that Sowaske, who has lived in Spring Harbor for half a century, sees more and more of.

“The neighborhood association always has a Fourth of July picnic, which brings out a lot of people,” she said. “This year I was amazed by how many young babies were there. And children. So the houses are turning over to younger families, for sure. It’s good to see.”

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