Imagine a stranger knocking on your door. You open it, greet the visitor, and she turns out to be the great, great granddaughter of the man who owned your home 150 years ago. That was Ledell Zellers and Simon Anderson’s experience last summer. They had the honor of being visited at their Madison landmark home by the descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte Van Slyke.
The Anderson/Zellers home, at 510 N. Carroll Street, was designated a Madison Landmark on January 31, 1972. It was built in 1856 for Samuel Fox, a successful hardware merchant, and subsequently sold to Van Slyke and his second wife, Annie, a few years later. The Van Slykes lived there until their deaths in 1909 and 1911.
Napoleon Bonaparte Van Slyke was a yankee from upstate New York who came to Madison in 1853. He quickly immersed himself in civic affairs of the fledgling capital city. He helped form the first abstract and title company and the Dane County Bank. The bank reorganized in 1864 to become the First National Bank (predecessor of the First Wisconsin and U.S. Banks) with Van Slyke serving as its president. He later became president of the Wisconsin Bankers Association.
As a member of Madison’s first Common Council, Van Slyke was criticized for netting only $79,000 from a $100,000 city bond issued in 1856 to finance early Madison development. More criticism followed when he deposited the proceeds in his Dane County Bank. He was cleared of any wrongdoing and remained a commanding force in Madison well into the 20th century.
Van Slyke also served as a regent of the University of Wisconsin–Madison for more than 30 years while John Bascom was president. In addition, during the Civil War Van Slyke was an assistant quartermaster general of Wisconsin, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
As a prominent early banker, Van Slyke financed many of the homes that were built on Big Bug Hill, the location of his own home. Bug Hill has been known at various times as Yankee Hill and Aristocracy Hill. Today this residential neighborhood is recognized as Mansion Hill, bounded approximately by Lake Mendota to the north, East and West Johnson Streets to the south, North Henry Street to the west, and North Butler Street (the edge of James Madison Park) to the east.
In 1976, Mansion Hill became Madison’s first historic district. The district contains the greatest concentration of unspoiled Victorian-era homes remaining in Madison. These buildings evoke an air of days gone by and the influence of early Madison’s movers and shakers.
The Van Slyke house was designed by August Kutzbock and Samuel Donnel, who established Madison’s first architectural firm. The firm also designed the 1857 Capitol building that burned in 1904 and the 1858 City Hall that was demolished in 1954.
In the popular Italianate style, the Van Slyke house is refined, skillfully detailed, and compares to some of the best houses of this style in the United States. The Italianate style, suggesting the romantic villas of Renaissance Italy, was most popular in the country during the last half of the 19th century. Italianate is characterized by a low-pitched or flat roof; a balanced symmetrical rectangular shape; a tall appearance with two, three, or even four stories; wide, overhanging eaves with brackets and cornices; porches with banistered balconies; and tall, narrow windows with hood moldings. These features are visible on the Van Slyke house. Italianate houses could be constructed of many different building materials, and the style could be adapted to either high-priced or modest budgets.
The walls of the Van Slyke house are constructed of sandstone mined from a local quarry. The stonework is of a form known as “block and stack,” in which large blocks are alternated with smaller stones and covered in raised mortar joints to highlight the variation in stone sizes. But, as Simon discovered when he began working on his home’s exterior, in some places grooves had been cut into the blocks and mortar had been applied to give the block and stack effect. Originally, all the raised mortar was lime washed to highlight the effect.
The only external change to the original house had been the addition of a wooden two-story porch on the back. Ironically, that section needed the most attention when Ledell and Simon purchased the house, and has now been reconstructed. The story of the interior was much different. The Van Slyke house had been divided into four apartments, as was typical of many Mansion Hill houses converted into multiunit residences, to meet the housing shortage following the end of World War II.
Ledell and Simon have lived in their home since 2001. Prior to moving downtown, they lived in the Nakoma neighborhood. How did they find the Van Slyke house? “We walked the neighborhood and took down addresses of houses we liked. Then we used the city assessor’s records to find the owners and called them to see if they were willing to sell,” Ledell recounts. In the early 2000s, houses were not on the market—no “For Sale” signs in yards. “It seemed as if people just exchanged homes rather than advertising them,” she says. Ledell and Simon were delighted to find the home and an agreeable seller.
The restoration of the Van Slyke house is on a “25-year rolling horizon,” according to Ledell. She adds, “I don’t see it as ever finished. We will continue to make it our own while restoring parts of the house that are important historically. Simon enjoys doing much of the work himself. Because he also works full-time, things are going to take a while.” The focus of restoration efforts is now on a back bedroom.
In 2010, Ledell and Simon were recognized by the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation with a stewardship award for ongoing preservation of a historic property. The Van Slyke house can be seen during the Mansion Hill West historic architecture walking tour, presented by the Trust. Tours are scheduled for August 25 at 6:00 p.m. and September 24 at 11:00 a.m. For details, see madisonpreservation.org/#!2016-tour-info/ppop1 . Historic buildings, like the Van Slyke house and others in the Mansion Hill historic district, help give Madison its civic identity and cultivate its sense of place.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.