Sometimes, as the saying goes, you can fit a whole lifetime in one day.
With a new bus tour that explores the history of the city’s neighborhoods, people will get a chance to see the whole lifetime of Madison in one day.
Saturday’s guided bus tour hosted by the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation takes a look at the way people have lived here for more than a century. It’s not a tour of just fancy mansions or important buildings, but a thorough look at homes and neighborhoods built from the 1850s to the 1950s.
“We’ll see where everybody lived,” said Anna Andrzejewski, a professor of art history at UW-Madison. “Madison is astonishing for having that range.”
The tour will include stately Victorians, massive Maple Bluff mansions, working-class houses and metal Lustron homes. There will be some interior tours, too, including one of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Jacobs House on the West Side. Lunch will be at the Italian Workmen’s Club on Regent Street.
“The mansions are an important part of Madison’s history, but there was always housing for middle and lower classes,” Andrzejewski said.
The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation has hosted walking tours of the city’s neighborhoods since 2001, from the city’s beginnings on a King Street tour to a new tour added this year that looks at the post-World War II housing of the Sunset Hills neighborhood on the West Side.
Last year, Madison hosted the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference (“vernacular” refers to ordinary, everyday architecture). Andrzejewski, who teaches a class called History of American Vernacular Architecture, created a bus tour of the city’s neighborhoods for conference attendees.
“There were people who wanted to go on the tour that didn’t want to go to the conference,” said Jason Tish, executive director of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. That planted the seed for the Trust to work with Andrzejewski on a new tour, Tish said.
Saturday’s event is modeled on last year’s tour for the conference, and will be led by Andrzejewski and Erica Fox Gehrig, an architectural historian and a member of the city’s Landmarks Commission.
The tour starts on the Isthmus and then, like the city itself, fans out. The first stop will be Third Lake Ridge, which offers a unique perspective beyond the homes.
“We’ll get to see the mansions right alongside housing for the working class that worked along the railroad corridor,” Andrzejewski said. “Seeing all that, when rich and poor lived side-by-side together, I think will surprise people.”
The East Side also offers a look at how things changed — with mansions of Maple Bluff that housed Oscar Mayer executives and the Eken Park neighborhood that housed many of its workers.
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“It’s not a neighborhood that is that interesting architecturally,” Tish said of Eken Park’s 1940s-era homes, “but when you see it in light of its history, it becomes more interesting. Then you understand how it fits into Madison history.”
The neighborhood near Packers Avenue is a revelation to many when they learn about it, Andrzejewski said. The post-war homes were some of the first pre-fabricated, builder-designed homes in the U.S. It wasn’t specific company housing for Oscar Mayer, but the company helped develop some of the neighborhood’s amenities such as the baseball diamonds. The company also helped facilitate the creation of some of the street crossings so people could get to the plant, Andrzejewski said.
“It’s a hidden gem in the city and no one knows about it,” she said of Eken Park.
Post-war housing is an important facet to a city’s history, Andrzejewski said, and she hopes the tour helps people make that connection. Homes such as those in the Hill Farms neighborhood on the West Side have reached the 50-year plateau to make them eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite that, Andrzejewski said the tour isn’t about telling people what to preserve.
“This is not a tour that’s going to advocate – at least from my standpoint – that we need to preserve the neighborhoods,” said Andrzejewski, a former member of the city’s Plan Commission. “But we need to know what they are so when pressures pop up we can be informed about the different phases of our history. We can have sincere conversations about what we want to keep.”
Tish said the more contemporary homes have been popular with a younger demographic on the Madison Trust tours, but Andrzejewski said convincing some people of the historic value of homes in post-war neighborhoods can be a tough sell.
“They are so close to us in time that it’s really hard to see them as historic,” she said. “Some people are uncomfortable with that because it’s the place they grew up and seemingly there’s nothing special about it. But people thought about Third Lake Ridge the same way back in the early 20th century.”
As she looks through the neighborhoods, Andrzejewski is intrigued by the parallels that exist despite the different generations of homes. Features that were integral to early home building such as limestone and Cream City brick reappear 100 years later as decorative details, particularly the Lannon Stone that was so popular for wall veneers, fireplaces and patios in 1950s homes.
“It’s amazing to see those continuities,” Andrzejewski said.
It’s all part of a city whose story is told through its houses, and getting people to pay attention to that.
“We think East Side, West Side but we don’t think of the range of housing in the city,” Andrzejewski said. “The idea is
to reinvigorate our interest in the city and its history, which does extend back 150 years. We need to really rethink what that history is.”