Wisconsin Historical Society Building

Photo by Wisconsin Historical Society

Two buildings bookend Madison’s State Street in the neoclassical revival architectural style. The Capitol building, at the top of State, and the Wisconsin Historical Society, at 816 State Street on the University of Wisconsin–Madison Library Mall, were constructed in the early 1900s and late 1890s respectively. The style is strongly associated with civic design—banks, courthouses, government buildings—and was a style popularized by the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Proponents of neoclassical architecture believed good design could educate and uplift people. So it was that the Wisconsin Historical Society building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, housed two libraries when it was first constructed.

The Wisconsin Historical Society was founded in 1846, two years before statehood, and the University in 1848. By the late 1890s, the Society’s collections and library had outgrown space in the director’s basement, in a local church, in the Capitol, and again in a local church. The University’s library was in similar straits. Because of overcrowding, students had to stand while studying. The solution proposed by the University’s president and the Society’s director was a single building serving both. The state legislature approved, and one building for two institutions was constructed on the University’s lower campus.

The late 19th century was a time of unparalleled economic growth. It was natural that Wisconsin would set its place in the Midwest by projecting an image of wealth, power, and aspiration through this magnificent building. When it was completed and dedicated in the fall of 1900, it was the most expensive building built by the state up to that time.

Photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society
Photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society

But it didn’t take long before the Society’s and the University’s libraries experienced a space crunch. Both shared one space until a second stack wing was built in 1914, when the collections were separated. Today, one can walk up the grand staircase on the north side of the building and follow in the footsteps of thousands of students who wore down the marble stairs on the way to the University’s library.

Space in the building was sufficient for both the Historical Society’s and the University’s libraries until the 1940s, when the post–World War II student boom was felt on campus. Finally a new University library, Memorial Library, was built and opened in 1953. The books that related to American history stayed with the Historical Society, while the others were moved via a book brigade to the new library across the mall. The Society became the sole occupant of the building.

Today, the Society’s library and archives collection numbers some four million items and is the largest collection in the country dedicated exclusively to North American history. Students still use the Society’s collections, as do genealogists and other researchers.

The second-floor Reading Room, the public face of the Society’s library, is a favorite student study area. The room you see today is a result of a $2.9 million restoration—or rather a re-creation—project by the Society in 2009–2010. What started out as a task to replace carpeting and failing fluorescent light bulbs, while installing technological upgrades, became a major project involving the State Division of Facilities and historic preservation and archives staff at the Society.

The challenge in the 21st century was one of figuring out the intent of the original architects. Money ran out before the Reading Room paint scheme could be executed at the start of the 20th century. Colorful stained glass panels, removed in a 1950s remodel, had graced its ceiling, but only black and white photographs existed. The call went out for any color photos. Society collections were scoured for a hint of the original color, but nothing was found.

Jim Draeger, the Society’s architectural historian at the time of the restoration, tells of walking through the building one day when it occurred to him that the lobby floor, with its marble mosaic tile work, held the clue to the color scheme for the Reading Room. The floral motifs of the floor were similar to those of the stained glass, so it stood to reason that the colors would be similar.

Photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society

A total of 14,760 pieces of Kokomo art glass were used to restore the Reading Room ceiling. In 1900, skylights on the floor above allowed the daylight to stream through the stained glass panels. Today, the skylights are no longer in place, so the effect of sunlight has been simulated with fluorescent lights reflecting upward from a box painted baby blue above the glass panels. The intensity of the light is Wisconsin on a cloudy day.

With neoclassical design, the inspirational spaces of a room are above eye level, so one has to look up to see more beauty in the Reading Room. Pendants suspended from the ceiling are covered in gold leaf as are other decorative elements in the ceiling coffers.

The restoration project also included monies for the creation of other art in the building. Several trompe l’oeil murals depicting the original breaker boxes can be seen on the second and third floors. The Society’s building was bright with electricity in its day, so it was natural that the breaker boxes would be visible to the public. But today the electrical capacity of the building is only flaunted through paintings done in a style that makes the breaker boxes look like real objects.

While the Reading Room is the most opulent feature of the Society’s headquarters, there is more to see. Examine the Centennial Mural, commissioned in observance of the Wisconsin state centennial in 1948, between the third and fourth floors. Three periods in Wisconsin’s history are depicted: exploration and fur trading, economic progress, and the state’s political heritage.

The exhibit on the fourth floor was curated by the staff of the Society’s archives as a tribute to Lyman Copeland Draper, the Society’s first corresponding secretary (director today), and to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. Mr. Draper collected manuscripts recording early American history, and has been called the “Prince of American Chroniclers.”

It’s easy to understand why the Wisconsin Historical Society sees its headquarters building as the largest artifact in its collection and why, after more than a century of use, the building remains one of the architectural and educational treasures in Wisconsin.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.