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.
So consider this an attempt at a more comprehensive list.
Madison's tallest buildings
|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.)
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.
In fact, campus high-rises including the WARF Building, the Engineering Research Building and the DeLuca Biochemistry Labs building have surpassed many of Madison’s other historic buildings when it comes to height.
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.