For years, Robert Dunn has looked from his Maple Bluff home across the often choppy and sometimes frozen waters of Lake Mendota with envy — and an idea.
The 9,781-acre lake’s shoreline is home to UW-Madison, the Governor’s Mansion and a growing number of multimillion-dollar homes that have replaced lake cottages and bungalows. But commercial development, with a few exceptions, has been absent on one of the state’s largest inland lakes.
Now, more than 10 years after he began talks with the previous owner of The Edgewater hotel, Dunn, 48, has seen his vision for the iconic property become a $100 million reality on the west end of Wisconsin Avenue.
The path included battling neighbors and city officials for approvals, losing a bid for $16 million in public financing and securing funding from an investment group that includes philanthropists W. Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland. But it’s no longer just a hotel with a restaurant and views of Picnic Point.
Instead, the 202-room property, with 356,220 square feet of space under roof, has the feel and amenities of a resort. Unlike most hotels that generate 90 percent of revenue from room rentals, The Edgewater’s business model relies on events to provide 40 percent of the hotel’s income.
“It’s a great destination for Madisonians and the region, not just for guests coming in from out of town,” Dunn said last week as he showed off the property. “There aren’t sites that offer this kind of opportunity any longer. They’ve all been built.”
Dunn wants the hotel to host 100 weddings a year, attract corporate outings, high-profile fundraisers for nonprofits and welcome a cross section of the city to the property. He also believes the project will help make Madison more of a destination for leisure travelers, some who crave and can afford upscale amenities.
The offerings include fine dining and casual restaurants, a ballroom, spa and two private-event spaces with outdoor patios on top of each of the property’s two hotel towers. Bathrooms include Italian marble and oversized tubs, and some come with $9,000 mirrors with built-in televisions.
A spiral staircase links three floors of the hotel while a digital gallery celebrates the people and places of Madison. Another gallery near the ballroom honors the works of John Nolen, a landscape architect and planner who developed plans for state parks, UW-Madison and the city in the early 1900s. Nolen identified The Edgewater site as a key component to the city’s development along with the site where Monona Terrace now stands on Lake Monona.
The Edgewater is just blocks from the Capitol Square, State Street and UW-Madison. Monona Terrace is just across the Isthmus, and the Overture Center a five-minute walk away.
“It’s just really a great asset for our community and as a visitor destination,” said Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There hasn’t been a product like this in our market before. It’s a great new addition.”
The Edgewater opened in 1948 and was built by the Quisling family, who founded a medical clinic a few blocks away. They hired Augie Faulkner, who had worked at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, as The Edgewater’s general manager and sold the property to him in the 1960s.
Over the years, some of the biggest names in the world have stayed at the hotel, including Elvis Presley, Bob Hope, Elton John and Liberace.
Faulkner died in 1996 but his family continued to own the property until it sold the 107-room landmark to Dunn, making him just the third principal owner of the property.
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Dunn grew up in University Heights on Madison’s Near West Side and graduated from Edgewood High School. He is president of Hammes Co., whose development projects have included Olympic venues; Ford Field, Detroit; Metlife Stadium, New Jersey; the Kohl Center; Miller Park and the $293 million renovation of Lambeau Field that includes an atrium, now a popular spot for weddings, meetings and conferences.
“The Packers used to be in business 10 days a year. This year, they’ll host 800 events,” Dunn said. “We’ve built an event business (at The Edgewater) and we have to create our own events. We have to reach out within the community and demonstrate to people that there’s a quality in service here and an experience here above and beyond anything else in the market.”
Dunn is also the managing partner for JDS Development — a joint venture between Hammes Co. and Majestic Realty — which is working on a plan to redevelop Judge Doyle Square that includes the Madison Municipal Building and the Government East parking garage. The latest plan calls for 200 to 250 hotel rooms on the site to help meet growing demand for Monona Terrace events. Other hotels in the Downtown include the 367-room Concourse, the 240-room Hilton near Monona Terrace, 214-room Best Western Inn on the Park and the 194-room Hampton Inn & Suites.
Gregg McManners, executive director of Monona Terrace, said The Edgewater continues a renaissance for the city’s Downtown, adds rooms and amenities, and will help attract events to Monona Terrace.
“I think Downtown Madison has become a destination, and anything that complements that intent of growing the Downtown and Madison into more of a destination certainly will help us in the long run,” McManners said. “I think it’s going to have direct and indirect results in regard to Monona Terrace’s performance.”
Construction at The Edgewater began in November 2012 and included closing the hotel, removing parts of the 1970s addition and gutting what remained of the original structure. Instead of 11 rooms per floor in what is now called the Langdon Building, the tower has eight rooms per floor, including extended-stay suites, Dunn said.
The building is home to a spa with a hair salon, 11 treatment rooms, a large whirlpool and an exercise facility where treadmills and elliptical machines provide straight-on views of sailboats and rowing teams plying the lake’s surface. At the building’s top is the Red Crown Club, a 2,800-square-foot private-event space with an outdoor patio.
“You really have to find the right balance, and we think 200 rooms is exactly the right balance for this market size,” Dunn said. “If you’re too small, you don’t get enough efficiency in your operations. If you’re too big, most nights you have a lot of empty rooms. It’s a large property because of all the amenities.”
That includes four restaurants. The former Rigadoon Room bar has been expanded into a two-level casual bar and restaurant called The Boathouse that, when it opens early next year, will provide guests seats just feet from the water’s edge and serve up fish fries and other classics. The Cafe serves sandwiches and coffee, while The Icehouse on the east side of the outdoor plaza sells pizza and hamburgers and, in the coming months, freshly made beer from an on-site microbrewery.
For upscale dining, The Statehouse features $60 cuts of aged rib-eye steak and walleye served with roasted root vegetables. The restaurant includes seating for 270, a two-sided display kitchen and a wine wall. Thomas Welther, The Edgewater’s executive chef, is the former executive chef at the 1,500-room Hilton Anatole in Dallas, which has six restaurants.
The Edgewater’s new 15-story tower, called the Wisconsin Building, is home to the 6,150-square-foot ballroom on the fifth floor and Sky Bar, a private-event space on top of the building that includes an expansive outdoor patio that could easily accommodate 200 people.
The tower has two presidential suites that rent for $350 to $1,250 a night. They include dining and living spaces, 80-inch televisions and bathrooms with multi-head showers and air-infused tubs. Other rooms start at $160 a night.
Outside, a public terrace has dozens of tables and will host concerts, tailgate parties on Badgers football home games and, in the winter, an ice skating rink and Christmas tree.
This spring, construction will begin on a 150-foot permanent pier that will include two floating piers with 38 boat slips. Dunn is searching for a wooden hull, 16-person water taxi and a dinner boat that can hold 100 guests.
“You really have to have a complement of amenities,” Dunn said. “I knew that when we got started with the project that it was going to take time to put it together. I was never comfortable with the idea of backing off on the core concept of what we were wanting to put together here.”