Studies have shown that regular cycling can contribute to one’s well-being by cutting the risk of heart disease, by holding back the effects of aging, and by rejuvenating the immune system. It’s fitting, then, that a bicycle shop should be located in a historic building whose renovation has contributed to the well-being of its community.
Motorless Motion Bicycles bought the historic Milwaukee Road Depot at 640 W. Washington Avenue and opened its doors in 2013. The building had been designated a Madison landmark in 1975 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The current building, constructed in 1903, was the second depot on the site. The first had been erected in 1854 to accommodate the first rail line passing through Madison from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien. The railroad company that operated the line was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad, known simply as the Milwaukee Road.
Frost and Granger, a Chicago architectural firm, designed the depot. Charles Sumner Frost, one of the partners, had married the daughter of a railroad magnate, putting him in a position to receive depot commissions. He also undertook studies for the design of railroad buildings. In regard to depot design he wrote, “Architecturally the building should express its purpose and, when possible, also give some hint as to the character of the town or city it serves. Above all things, as it is intended for a waiting place, the shelter feature must be strongly developed. The wall and piers should be massive, even out of proportion to the load they carry, in order not to be damaged by the vibration and jar caused by passing trains.”
The Milwaukee Road Depot, an imposing brick structure, is in the beaux arts neo-classical style with bracketed eaves, arched windows, and other Renaissance details. This architectural style was popularized by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Its design marked the heyday of the railroad as the prime mover of people and goods.
A report on the opening of the depot in one of Madison’s early local newspapers, the Madison Democrat , stated, “The depot embodies all of the latest and newest features of railroad depot construction with a view particularly to the convenience of the traveling public.” The paper commented that the building was especially attractive in the evening when the electric lights were turned on. The interior waiting room had benches and fancy rockers to accommodate 200 to 300 passengers.
The Milwaukee Road brought tourists, legislators, university students, and soldiers to Madison throughout the years. Along with two other railroads, the Milwaukee Road facilitated the development of the city as a wholesale and distribution center large enough to serve farmers and agricultural industries throughout the Midwest, according to the National Register nomination.
With a reputation for high-quality service, the Milwaukee Road provided some of the most innovative and colorful trains. However, people stopped using the railroad for transportation, and by the mid-20th century, the Milwaukee Road saw a marked decline in ridership. The company discontinued passenger service on April 30, 1971, and was the last rail company in Madison to do so. The Milwaukee Road continued its freight operation but eventually went bankrupt and merged into the Soo Line Railroad, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway, on January 1, 1986.
After the Milwaukee Road ceased passenger operations, its depot closed and the building fell into severe disrepair. In 1987, the Alexander Company began its West Washington Avenue rail corridor development with the conversion of the Wiedenbeck-Dobelin Warehouse into apartments, and two years later, purchased the Milwaukee Road Depot. “It was in a central location in an area that was quite blighted,” explains Dave Vos, project manager. “There was no Kohl Center at that time. Schmidt’s Salvage was located adjacent to the site. One of the biggest issues with the depot was environmental cleanup. We also had to find tenants to occupy the building.”
Restoration work on the building included a new roof, masonry tuck-pointing, rebuilding and repairing doors and windows, building in new mechanical systems, and replacing train tracks at a cost of $2.9 million. The Alexander Company purchased a 1940s-era locomotive, towed it to the site where it still stands, and converted it into one-of-a-kind commercial spaces. The depot was adapted into a restaurant. The walls of the restaurant were decorated with hand-painted murals with railroad-station themes.
“The Alexander Company found projects like the Milwaukee Road Depot that no one else wanted to do and returned them as points of pride to the community. A historic building connects a community to its roots. It differentiates that community from others and helps its residents to understand why it exists,” says Dave.
For Roger Charly, owner of Motorless Motion and a huge fan of Americana, the Milwaukee Road Depot was a fitting building for his business. According to the store’s general manager, Alex Zacher, the depot underwent another major restoration to preserve its character and to bring it back as close as possible to the original station. The terrazzo floor was restored along with the paving stones on the platform. The platform was glassed in and is now an interior part of the store, allowing for more inventory on the sales floor as well as protecting the building’s facade.
Alex notes, “We worked with the same architect, James McFadden, who had been working on the property for many years. He knew the building inside and out. He knew what renovations had been done, what changed, who did it, and why they did it. He was extremely helpful.
“We show off this striking building as much as we can. Customers drink it in. It’s not that often one can come into a building with 50-foot ceilings. It produces a certain awe factor. … Being in this historic building helps our business become a bigger part of the city.”
Now that spring is right around the corner, the time is right to start cycling for better health in Madison, a city rated Platinum from the League of American Bicyclists enhancing the community by protecting the historic character of the built environment.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.