Some of Madison’s earliest inhabitants realized the significance of the site right away.
Between 700 and 1,600 years ago, Native Americans chose the bluff overlooking Lake Monona to build something monumental, a 318-foot-long, turtle-shaped effigy mound.
Fast forward to the early 1900s, when the country’s foremost landscape architect and city planner, John Nolen, arrived from Boston to survey the city and prepare plans for building a better Madison.
When he published his master plan, “Nolen’s Madison: A Model City” in 1911, he also realized the importance of the site at the end of Monona Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). His plan called for a landscaped mall flanked by public buildings that would link Lake Monona to the state Capitol.
Years later, in 1935, the city was debating the pros and cons of building an auditorium, and whether to raise taxes for the project. The Wisconsin State Journal urged proceeding with the plan stating, “We shall have to have an auditorium within the next 10 years. The march of events will compel us.”
By 1938, a group of Madison civic leaders was ready. They turned to world-famous architect and Spring Green resident Frank Lloyd Wright.
Already known as an architectural genius, the flamboyant and controversial Wright always loved Madison but thought the city had missed a great opportunity by not connecting the Capitol Square to Lake Monona.
His “dream civic center” unveiled in November 1938 included city and county offices, a jail, a railroad depot and a boat facility as part of a semicircular building at the foot of Monona Avenue and extending over the lake. The plans were well received and, in 1941, city voters approved, by a 2-to-1 ratio, two referendums to construct a $750,000 government complex and municipal auditorium.
Two months later, Wright revealed a modified version of his original proposal in a full-page illustrated article in the State Journal. But U.S. entry into World War II tabled the plan.
Redesigned and then reintroduced as a civic center, the project was the focus of some of the nastiest battles during the 1950s, when opponents did everything possible to block the project which, at that time, could have been built for less than $4 million.
The subject of multiple referendums, lawsuits, and numerous pieces of state legislation, it pitted several factions of the community against one another, including the city’s two newspapers, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal.
Though still editorially independent, the two newspapers had entered into an agreement in 1949 to share the heavy costs of publishing by forming Madison Newspapers Inc.
During one of those bitter editorial fights, the State Journal fulminated that it “does not believe — as the Captimes evidently does — that these first sketches by Mr. Wright came direct from Mt. Sinai on tablets of stone. They are first sketches, nothing more nor less.”
For many years, the State Journal considered the site to be impractical, and the cost of developing it too high.
Then, on April 9, 1959, just two months shy of his 92nd birthday, Frank Lloyd Wright died in Arizona.
“The death of Frank Lloyd Wright will cause ‘some delay’ in the Wright-designed Monona Terrace project,” then-mayor Ivan Nestingen noted, more prophetically than he could have known.
It took nearly 60 years, but Wright’s eighth and final rendition of Monona Terrace opened in 1997, fulfilling his promise and the earlier vision of John Nolen.