The House of Michelangelo's Coffee

Photo by Michelangelos Coffee House

Built in 1905, the Lamb Building, at 114 State Street, is one of the earliest and finest remaining Queen Anne-style commercial buildings in Madison. The structure was designed by local architectural masters Claude and Starck and is a Madison landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

The National Register nomination notes that the Lamb Building is unique because of the Jacobean feeling created by its multistory, wide bay windows with leaded glass and heraldic shield designs, brick façade, and stone corners. The original store front has been preserved, one of only four pre-World War I era commercial buildings in downtown Madison. Even though the Lamb Building is small, it was built better than other larger and more complex commercial structures in the city. The rapid growth experienced by Madison after 1920 resulted in the destruction of a number of earlier commercial buildings, making the Lamb Building and those that remain special.

For the last 23 years, the Lamb Building has housed Michelangelo’s Coffee House on the first floor. Previous tenants have included a drug store, confectionary shop, a social club, a beauty parlor, a bridal shop, men’s clothing store, music teacher’s studio, and bank offices. The architects who designed the building even had offices in the building at one time.

Photograph provided by Michelangelo’s Coffee House

When Michelangelo’s owner, Sam Chehade, saw the building in the late 1990s, he found what he was looking for in terms of interior layout; size; and, most of all, location. Not only is the coffee shop’s main entrance on State Street, there’s another entrance around the corner on Mifflin Street. “We did rather extensive work on the interior of the building putting in the necessary utilities to operate a food service/coffee shop venue. The exterior has not changed. We just do regular maintenance to keep the building in sound structural condition,” Sam says.

The building was originally constructed for Francis J. Lamb, a prominent Madison attorney. Lamb was born in western New York in 1825 and raised on a farm. There he cleared land, split logs, and generally engaged in the hard manual labor of farming. Lamb later studied law and practiced in New York until he moved to Madison in 1857, following his parents, who had moved to the area 10 years earlier.

At one time, Lamb was a partner with Philip Spooner, who became a Madison mayor. During the 1870s, Lamb was partners with George Smith. Their firm was one of the leading law firms in Wisconsin. A prominent client was the Chicago and North Western Railway. In the early 1880s, Lamb partnered with Burr Jones. That firm was the beginning of today’s Axley Brynelson, LLP, one of the oldest practices in Madison. Lamb left before the decade ended and formed a partnership with two others and his son, Charles. He retired from the practice of law in 1904, but that wasn’t the end of his life in the community.

Photograph provided by Michelangelo’s Coffee House

Lamb was a Ripon College trustee for many years and president of the Wisconsin Home Missionary Society for more than 20 years. He served on the Madison Board of Education and as court commissioner of the Dane County Circuit Court. He’d been an active member of the First Congregational Church in Madison for 60 years and continued until his death in 1916.

According to the eulogy delivered by Burr Jones, Lamb was not only serious, but had a “delicious sense of humor.” Burr went on to say that Lamb possessed an “inexhaustible fund of stories, apt scriptural allusions, and quaint old sayings,” making him a “most interesting companion. For many years, the younger lawyers were accustomed to seek his advice on the knotty problems which arose in their practice, and no one could give such help more satisfactorily or in a kindlier spirit.”

In 1909, Lamb published the book Miracle and Science: Bible Miracles Examined by the Methods, Rules and Tests of the Science of Jurisprudence as Administered Today in Courts of Justice. At that time, critics denied Biblical miracles, declaring such actions to be impossible and not to be the basis of history. They advocated removing miracles from the Bible. Lamb, however, using the philosophy and theories of the law, argued there is evidence to prove Bible miracles are true.

It’s fitting, then, that a prominent image in the Lamb Building is the most famous section of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, The Creation of Adam. Painted by artist Michelangelo in the early 16th century, the painting illustrates the Biblical creation narrative from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, in which God gives life to Adam, the first man.

Photograph provided by Michelangelo’s Coffee House

“The name Michelangelo is a catchy name that gives a little bit of old-world feel for the coffee shop. It’s something our customers enjoy,” Sam says. “We march to the beat of a different drummer since the design of the coffee shop is not the latest trend—minimal, white, and new. Our customers like walking into a space that has been there a long time. Without even realizing it, they connect to the past. … Historical buildings help anchor a city to itself. We are extending the legacy of this building by being locally owned and operated.”

Michelangelo’s is a small-batch coffee brewer, meaning that one small airpot is brewed at a time. Sam explains, “Even though our system requires more labor because we are constantly brewing, we believe that the freshness of the coffee is essential to the product. Small batch also refers to the small farmers who grow the coffee beans. Their farms, on average, are about six acres in size, and they form cooperatives to bring their product to market.”

Sam’s dedication to supporting small farmers and his unwavering commitment to serving only fair trade, socially conscious coffee would no doubt be looked upon favorably by Francis Lamb, a man who knew farm life from his pioneer days in New York and service to the community from his time in Madison.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.

Photograph by MOD Media Productions