For its swimming beach, grassy fields, popular basketball courts, shelter and the elegant Gates of Heaven, historic James Madison Park is a Downtown oasis on the shores of Lake Mendota.
Now, the city is asking the public to help create a master plan and shelter design for the 12.6-acre park, 614. E. Gorham St.
The park “is very important,” said parks planning and development manager Janet Schmidt. “It’s very heavily used by a wide variety of people. We want to do some shelter improvements. We recognize the neighborhood wants to be involved in updating the master plan.”
To start the process, the Parks Division is hosting a community kickoff meeting Wednesday at the Central Library. The kickoff will be followed by additional public meetings through the year, concluding with a draft master plan final presentation in late September.
“It’s important to get as many people involved as we can,” Schmidt said. “We’re open to everyone’s input.”
The park, which has evolved over time, currently has a beach, basketball and volleyball courts, B-cycle station, canoe and kayak launch and storage, fishing, playground and on-leash dog area, accommodates slacklining and has the reservable Gates of Heaven and park shelter, restrooms and parking.
James Madison Park is a vital component of the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, said Patty Prime, neighborhood association president. While it’s one of several parks in the neighborhood, James Madison is a gathering place for people of all walks of life.
“It’s very busy with people from all over the city, including students,” Prime said.
In the city’s original plans, made by James Doty in 1836, the park site was to be one end of a canal between lakes Monona and Mendota, according to the Parks Division. The canal was never dug, but a square of land bounded by Franklin, Hancock, and Gorham streets remained.
In the 1870s, the 65-foot, 150-passenger steam yacht “Mendota” made daily trips around the lake from the site.
In 1939, the city purchased property a bit to the west, which once held the Conklin & Sons Mendota Ice House, to develop it as a park providing lake access near the center of the city. The park was used regularly by swimmers, but thought too small for a shelter.
The city added land in the 1950s, and in 1963, with no public facilities specifically named after the fourth president, named the park after James Madison. Federal aid allowed the city to buy much of the property in the 600 block of East Gorham Street in the 1960s.
The Gates of Heaven, built in 1863 and one of the oldest surviving synagogue buildings in the nation, originally stood at 214 W. Washington Ave., but was threatened with demolition in 1970 and eventually jacked up on 96 aircraft wheels and moved to the park, where it’s now a photogenic setting for weddings and other events.
Architect Kenton Peters, who designed the cobalt blue federal courthouse Downtown and the metallic UW Foundation and Marina condo buildings, designed the James Madison Park shelter, built into the hillside in 1979.
In 1995, the city added a lot to improve access to the Bernard-Hoover Boathouse at 622 E. Gorham St., which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Parks Division is currently looking at remodeling and revamping the existing shelter, if possible, but is open to ideas on a design for a new facility, Schmidt said.
It’s unclear when improvements to the park would be made, she said. “Budgets are very tight lately,” she said. “It depends on what comes out of the meetings and what the master plan looks like.”