The story of the Madison Candy Company building, 744 Williamson Street, is in its link to Madison’s industrial beginnings and growth. Until the late 19th century there was little manufacturing in Madison due, in part, to the opposition of the city’s leaders, especially those in the professional and academic communities. However, spurred on by inevitable development around the many railroads on Madison’s east side, attitudes changed and city leaders began to see industry as a sign of growth. They also realized the added tax revenues from industry would fund services needed by a growing city.
But only high-grade factories that employed skilled, well-paid artisans were encouraged to locate to Madison. Industry was to be concentrated on the east side of the city in the factory district. Madison Candy Company was located on the west end of the district. To this day, very few buildings stand from Madison’s early industrial period, of which candy manufacturing had been an important local industry.
Madison Candy Company was founded in 1899 at another Williamson Street location, where they manufactured a variety of candy and were best known for chocolate creams. The company marketed its products throughout Wisconsin and later in Illinois. In 1903, Madison Candy Company moved up the street and a new factory, designed by John Nader, a prominent Madison architect and engineer, was constructed to be closer to the railroad. There were 27 stoves and 11 or 12 chimneys to support the candy production. The factory ceased operation in 1927.
Even with its vernacular commercial style, the Madison Candy Company building displays decorative elements on its front facade. The wall along the edge of the roof has stone caps with a roughened surface. Two round windows flank a date stone that reads “1903”. The four arched windows on the second and third floors give the appearance of being separated by red brick columns.
The building stood vacant for several years until the Wisconsin Farm Bureau occupied it in 1935. Beginning in 1946, the building was home to Ela Industrial Supply Company. Architect John Martens bought the building in 1991 and rented the space back to Ela for six years until that company found another location. During that time, John had ample opportunity to explore and study the three-story building and plan for its restoration brick by brick and board by board. When the building spoke to John, he listened. “It was important to understand what the building wanted to be and then fit that in respectfully and economically.
This particular building, located in a neighborhood with a troubled past, “deserved to be seen by the public,” John says. “Even though a restaurant is more of a challenge for a landlord than an office building, I thought a restaurant was the best way to activate the building, the street, and the neighborhood.” John approached Monty Schiro, founder of Food Fight Restaurant Group, who immediately saw the possibility. Monty’s Eldorado Grill opened in 1998. Ground Zero, owned by Lindsey Lee, opened next door that same year. Both establishments have been in their current locations ever since.
“There were no surprises when renovation started. I saw what remodeling had been done over the years. I knew what was required from building codes. I planned for infrastructure that would minimize major changes, but I could still get financing to renovate only one floor at a time,” John says. As it turned out, once reconstruction started and John had secured Eldorado Grill as a tenant, his credibility went up and he was able to obtain one loan for the entire building’s renovation.
The Madison Candy Company building is listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places. As an intact example of industrial architecture, the Madison Candy Company building represents architect Nader’s expertise in both design and engineering, according to the nomination document. The building was designed to withstand the weight of heavy equipment and supplies. It was important that the building be fireproof since it housed an industry that relied on cooking. On each of the levels, a central wood beam runs the 60-foot length. The beams are supported by heavy wood posts and, in the basement, by massive masonry columns.
“The patina on the wood floors speaks to the countless hours of people who labored there. The dings and scratches look like something one would want to get rid of, but those are the most precious parts of the building,” says John. When restoring the building, he carefully removed woodwork and hired neighborhood youth to denail it so that it could be used again. John regaled his construction crews with stories about the building and its early days. As the crews became more aware of the building’s history, in Tom Sawyer fashion, John was able to get them to do jobs, like the tedious work of installing repurposed wainscoting throughout
John, originally a Kaukauna native, has a degree from the University of Southern California in architecture. He is one of the founders and first treasurer of the Friends of Historic Third Lake Ridge, dedicated to preserving the history of the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood. In 2017, John received a lifetime achievement award from the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. He was recognized for his advocacy for historic preservation as well as for his preservation projects, including the Madison Candy Company building.
“I never considered myself a preservationist,” says John. “I just like old buildings, especially industrial buildings. … Everyone is a preservationist when they feel the presence of the past. Seeing the details and the pride that went into the work goes beyond historic preservation. What you see in these buildings are in ourselves—embedded are mistakes as well as better moments. But we shouldn’t be concerned with polishing the defects. There are stories behind those defects.”
As for the future, John declares Williamson Street, with his Madison Candy Company building, to be “the original mixed-use urban community. It is the best example of what was there from the start; it doesn’t need to be built from the ground up. My hope is that its diversity is maintained and that this community does not lose its charm.”
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.