Hoyt Park

Photo by Madison Parks Department

Madison residents who want to get away from it all don’t have to travel far. Frank W. Hoyt Park, at 3902 Regent Street, occupies 32 acres of woodland surrounded by a residential neighborhood. The park is bounded by Bluff Street on the north and Regent Street on the south. Regent becomes Owen Parkway in the southwest section of the park and ends at Hillcrest Drive. The park sits on top of a glacial drumlin (an elongated hill), one of the highest points in the city. Sunset Point on Owen Parkway offers widespread views of Madison’s west side.

Hoyt Park was designated a Madison landmark in 1995 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. The park consists of two different sections developed at different times in the 19th century and joined together in the 20th century. One of Madison’s most significant and concentrated collections of Depression-era, rustic-style park buildings and other structures can be seen in Hoyt Park.

The origins of Hoyt Park go back to 1890, when Madison acquired the property rights to a stone quarry that began operation in 1850. Light-buff fine-grained buff sandstone was quarried and used in the construction of many early Madison buildings, some of which are still standing. Dolomite extracted from the quarry was crushed and used for paving city streets.

The other segment of Hoyt Park includes Owen Parkway, the second privately developed pleasure drive in Madison and one of the few remaining road segments from the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association’s (MPPDA’s) history.

Photograph courtesy of Madison Parks Department

The MPPDA was formed by a group of civic-minded men with the goal of expanding publicly accessible pleasure drives. The University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of Facilities Planning & Management notes, “During the latter part of the 19th century, a horse-drawn carriage ride through the countryside surrounding Madison was a favorite recreational activity for families and courting couples alike. Often the roads they traveled were designed to emphasize a leisurely tour along a scenic route—hence the reference to these byways as pleasure drives.”

The MPPDA disbanded in 1938 after transferring the title of its holdings to the city, and its activities were assumed by the Madison Parks Commission.

The Owen Parkway parcel was purchased in 1892 by UW–Madison professor Edward T. Owen, who had become captivated with the outstanding view from the top of the drumlin. He had a carriage road built to and through his land. And later he donated the parcel to the MPPDA. The trail was named Owen Parkway in his honor. Soon, the top of the hill became known as Sunset Point.

According to his 1931 obituary, Owen was deeply interested in anything that pertained to beautifying Madison’s natural surroundings and making them available to the public.

When the quarry ceased operations in 1928, Madison’s Common Council decided to combine the property and the adjacent Owen Parkway to create a public park. The park was dedicated and named after Frank W. Hoyt in 1933.

Hoyt, who was known as the “grand old man” because of his park work, was born in Madison in 1852. He eventually became president of the First National Bank and was a prominent realtor. Between 1894 and 1934, Hoyt was a leader in the MPPDA and served as treasurer for many years. He also served on the Madison Parks Commission for more than a decade in the 1930s and 1940s. Hoyt was believed to have been the oldest native born Madisonian at the time of his death in 1950.

Photograph courtesy of Madison Parks Department

The city began developing a plan for the new park in 1928, and four years later, land had been cleared for park amenities. Improvement of Hoyt Park accelerated when federal funding was released through the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which were New Deal programs to halt unemployment that had been caused by the Great Depression.

The rustic style was popular in the early 20th century and quickly became accepted as the appropriate architecture for vacation houses, resorts, and camps built in heavily forested landscapes. This style also proved to be especially appropriate for park sites, placing a premium on creating newly built resources that blended into the landscape. Crews used mostly hand tools on designs that conveyed a sense of the past through a feeling of having been handcrafted by pioneer builders. Building materials were often left in their natural condition.

The last of the sandstone from the city quarry was used to build the shelter house, fireplaces, picnic tables, restroom building, retaining walls, stairways, and other Hoyt Park structures. Italian masons from the Greenbush neighborhood were responsible for much of the construction. Though money for some of the building projects ran out, the Italian masons continued to work with no compensation to complete what they’d started.

A May 1934 Wisconsin State Journal report praised the park: “Hoyt Park offers perhaps the finest facilities for food preparation. No single feature of the picnic ground seems so indispensable as that of the camp oven. … The ones provided were built for convenience, utility, and beauty beyond the primary needs to just boil water.”

Photograph courtesy of Madison Parks Department

A columnist for The Capital Times wrote that the work done in the park utilizing Madison’s natural beauty and resources was “going to make Madison one of the most enjoyable and interesting cities in the country in which to live.”

The Depression-era structures began to deteriorate over time, so concerned citizens founded the Friends of Hoyt Park in 1995 to restore and preserve the features of the park’s past. With financial contributions from both the city and the Friends, 12 stone fireplaces were meticulously restored to their previous condition. In addition to the restoration work, the Friends developed and implemented provisions in a master plan calling for prairie restorations and invasive-species control.

The Friends group funds a ranger to work in the park during the summer and organizes community events in the park, including owl walks, picnics, bat surveys, and monthly work parties. In the future, the Friends hope to continue prairie-restoration work and update the master plan while expanding activities offered in the park, such as birdwatching walks and butterfly observations.

Tim Astfalk, president of the Friends of Hoyt Park, says, “My favorite aspect of Hoyt Park is the variety of activities the park offers and the diversity of people it brings together. The park has everything from playgrounds to nature trails, picnic shelters to ball fields, and historic structures to a great location to watch the sun set. There are prairies and woods and nice places to meet people. This diversity of activities really makes Hoyt Park a valuable resource for our community.”

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.

Photograph by MOD Media Productions