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Madison skyline from Van Hise Hall (copy)

The state Capitol and Downtown skyline as viewed from the upper floors of Van Hise Hall, which at 241 feet is the second tallest building in Madison.

There’s little doubt about the tallest building in Madison.

It’s the State Capitol, of course, which measures 284 feet from the ground to the top of “Wisconsin,” the Golden Lady statue that sits atop the marble dome.

But after that, things get a little more complicated.

At 19 stories, Van Hise Hall on the UW-Madison campus is generally considered the second tallest building in Madison. Completed in 1966, it offers stunning views of the surrounding city and lakes.

Based on UW building plans, Van Hise is 241 feet tall counting its rooftop “mechanical penthouse.” That’s the term for a top portion dedicated to elevator equipment, electronics, heating/cooling or other systems of a building.

But rooftop equipment is often excluded from building height measurements. And some buildings — like the Churchill Building at 16 N. Carroll St. — have seen additions that were overlooked in some accounts.

Those are some of the issues I ran into when trying to put together a list of Madison’s tallest buildings. We ran a list in The Capital Times last month but heard from readers that we were missing several buildings, especially some on the UW campus.

Wikipedia and Emporis, which tracks global building data, both offer lists of the tallest buildings in Madison. But neither is complete or totally accurate.

So consider this an attempt at a more comprehensive list.

Madison's tallest buildings

Recorded height refers to historic reports, building records, interviews and data from Emporis, a leading provider of building information and construction projects.

Pictometry height refers to measurements made using a geographic information system (GIS). It captures any structure on top of a building including antennas, satellite dishes or mechanical equipment.

Building Floors Recorded height* Pictometry height* Year completed
State Capitol 5 284 ft. 283 ft. 1917
Atmosphere, Ocean, Space (UW) 15 204 ft. 258 ft. 1969
Van Hise Hall 19 241 ft. 231 ft. 1966
Wis Institutes for Med Research 8 210 ft. 210 ft. 2008
Engineering Research (UW) 16 195 ft. 209 ft. 1969
UW Hospital 8 144 ft. 200 ft. 1972
Am Fam Children's Hospital 6 171 ft. 196 ft. 2007
Hilton Hotel 14 NA 196 ft. 2001
WARF Office Building 14 181 ft. 190 ft. 1970
DeLuca Biochemistry Labs (UW) 5 179 ft. NA 1998
State DOA Building 101 E. Wilson 10 NA 187 ft. 1992
State Office Building 1 W. Wilson 13 177 ft. 183 ft. 1939
Marina Condos 14 NA 183 ft. 2005
131 W. Wilson (Paisan's) 12 NA 178 ft. 1970
316 W. Wash (AT&T) 11 NA 176 ft 1971
Meriter Hospital 202 S. Park 11 NA 173 ft. 2007
222 W. Washington Ave. 10 NA 172 ft. 1972
University Square 12 164 ft. 171 ft. 2008
Metropolitan Place II 333 W. Wash 13 135 ft. 171 ft. 2007
Meriter Retirement 110 S. Henry 15 NA 171 ft. 1975
UW Microbial Sciences 6 NA 170 ft. 2007
Public Safety (Dane Courthouse) 8 NA 165 ft. 2006
Educational Sciences (UW) 13 154 ft. 164 ft. 1972
Grainger Hall (UW) 6 NA 162 ft. 1993
Churchill Bldg. (16 N. Carroll) 9 134 ft. 161 ft. 1915
Edgewater Hotel (new) 15 159 ft. NA 2014
Constellation Apartments 12 158 ft. NA 2013
Hovde Building (122 W. Wash) 10 134 ft. 157 ft. 1928
100 Wisconsin Ave. (condos) 12 157 ft. 157 ft. 2001
22 E. Mifflin 10 NA 156 ft. 1998
Capitol Center 333 W. Dayton 17 119 ft. 155 ft. 1982
Capitol Point 125 N. Hamilton 12 NA 155 ft. 2002
Grand Central Apt (1022 W. Johnson) 13 NA 154 ft. 2009
First Congregational Church NA NA 154 ft. 1930
Concourse Hotel 13 NA 153 ft. 1974
Nolen Shore condominiums 12 149 ft. 150 ft. 2006
Animal Sciences (UW) 11 149 ft. 150 ft. 1972
Chemistry Building (UW) 9 141 ft. 147 ft. 2002
Madison Mark Apts 132 E. Wilson 12 NA 146 ft. 2005
Camp Randall Stadium NA NA 146 ft. 2005
Embassy Apts 505 Univ Av 12 NA 146 ft. 2001
Tenney Plaza 10 125 ft. 145 ft. 1929
Capitol West 309 W. Wash 11 133 ft. 144 ft. 2008
Van Vleck Hall (UW) 8 NA 146 ft. 1961
Belmont Hotel (YWCA) 12 140 ft. 141 ft. 1924
Science Hall (UW) 6 145 ft. 140 ft. 1887
Equinox Apts 409 W. Gorham 12 NA 140 ft. 2005
Inn on the Park 8 NA 139 ft. 1961
The Loraine (condos) 10 143 ft. 129 ft. 1925
Hyatt Place 11 126 ft. 126 ft. 2010

(*Recorded height refers to historic reports, building records, interviews and data from Emporis, a leading provider of building information and construction projects. Pictometry height refers to measurements made using a geographic information system (GIS). It captures any structure on top of a building including antennas, satellite dishes or mechanical equipment.)

Dan Seidensticker of the city of Madison planning department was a great help, offering data based on his GIS-based calculations using Pictometry, an aerial image capturing process.

According to Seidensticker’s data, the second tallest building in Madison is the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Spaces Sciences (AOS) building on the UW engineering campus, which measures 258 feet tall.

But that measurement also counts those big white satellite dishes on top of the building. That’s a major drawback to the GIS data: it captures any structure on top of a building including antennas, radio towers or mechanical equipment. In many cases, the GIS data doesn’t jibe with official building records.

The AOS building itself is only 204 feet tall, according to UW facilities manager Gary Brown, who looked at original construction documents for a dozen tall buildings on campus.

“I’m assuming they were all built according to the plans but this doesn’t include the equipment on top of most of the buildings,” he says.

Based on Brown’s research, Van Hise Hall is the second tallest building in Madison at 241 feet from the ground. The third tallest at 210 feet is the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research, adjacent to UW Hospital.

The nine-story Churchill Building (originally the Gay Building) at 16 N. Carroll St. was billed as Madison’s first “skyscraper” when it was completed in 1915. At 134 feet it was the tallest building in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee at the time.

Fearing the Capitol would be overshadowed by newer buildings, Madison officials passed a 90-foot height limit shortly after the Churchill Building opened. But the law was struck down by the state Supreme Court. Construction of the 11-story, 140-foot Belmont Hotel (now the YWCA) at the corner of Pinckney and Mifflin streets followed.

Owners of the Churchill Building also reacted to the court ruling and quickly added another floor.

“They were worried the city was going to pass a new height limit and decided to go taller while they could,” says Kermit Bergs, operations manager for Hovde Properties, which purchased the building in 1974 and renamed it the Churchill Building.

Today, the Churchill Building actually measures 161 feet tall, according to GIS calculations, which capture the elevator equipment on the top of the historic building.

Still, determining the height of a building for planning purposes is never simple. There are questions whether to count by floors or to include rooftop mechanicals in the calculations.

In some cases, the 13th floor is omitted because it's considered unlucky. Designers may designate the 13th floor as level 14 or close it to the public by making it a storage or mechanical room.

Advances in building design have also largely eliminated the need for an elevator penthouse or other rooftop equipment. These changes have made it easier for architects to squeeze more usable space out of a structure. Developers can now add another floor of apartments that might have otherwise been designated for building equipment.

“You can really push things right to the height limits these days,” says Bergs.

That’s a key point, given the city’s 1965 Capitol View Protection Ordinance, which prohibits any buildings taller than the base of the columns (180 feet) within a mile of the Capitol. 

At the same time, the number of stories — rather than the actual height of a building — often becomes the lightning rod in public debates over new projects.

For example, developers looking to build a new mixed-use apartment project on the 700 block of Williamson Street have reduced the height of the tallest portion of the building by two stories, from 10 floors to 8 floors. Neighborhood critics have noted that is still one story taller than what is recommended in the adopted land use plan for the site.

City of Madison planner Tim Parks says land use plans generally include guidelines on the number of stories rather than actual height. But those plans can also include limits on story size or the number of feet from floor to floor.

Parks notes that the Monroe Street and Regent Street-South Campus area land use plan include specific floor-to-floor height recommendations as does the new Downtown Plan. Those plans call for taller floors to accommodate commercial space with shorter floors for residential uses.

“We also include some parameters on story height so someone doesn’t pervert the scale of a building, like a hypothetical 80-foot tall, four-story building,” he says.

But no matter how buildings are measured these days, this much seems clear: Madison is seeing a building boom today that rivals the 1920s when the city saw its first flurry of downtown high-rises.

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