Could a newly married couple turn down a house, a gift from the father of the bride, designed by an individual regarded as the spiritual father of modern architecture? Of course not. So it was that Dr. Harold C. Bradley and his wife, Mary Josephine Crane Bradley, came to own a home on Madison’s near-west side that was designed by Louis Sullivan. Built in 1909, the Bradley House, at 106 N. Prospect Avenue, in the University Heights Historic District, is only one of two Sullivan designs in Wisconsin. The other is the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank in Columbus.
Madison’s first landmark and a National Historic Landmark designated in 1976, the Bradley House became home to the Sigma Phi fraternity in 1915. The longest-running social fraternity in the United States—since 1827—Sigma Phi came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1908 and purchased the house from the Bradleys. The couple moved to a nearby Shorewood Hills home designed by George Elmslie. Elmslie was Sullivan’s chief draftsman and, as some architectural historians have noted, an equal to Sullivan in designing the Bradley House.
Dr. Bradley came to UW–Madison as a junior professor of biochemistry and physiology in 1905. Soon after, he was asked to become part of a faculty team seeking to develop a UW medical program. After arriving, Bradley met, fell in love with, and married student Mary Josephine Crane of the prominent Chicago industrialist Crane family.
The couple’s first child and only daughter, Mary Cornelia Bradley, was born May 1909 and died in January 1916 of meningitis. The Bradleys, desiring a meaningful remembrance of their daughter, hoped to build a research and teaching hospital connected to the UW medical school. Dr. and Mrs. Bradley raised $75,000 of the $93,000 needed to realize their dream. Located at 1225 Linden Drive, the first children’s hospital opened in Madison in 1920 and was named the Mary Cornelia Bradley Hospital for the Study of Children’s Diseases. The building remains and currently houses two UW departments. Today, the children's hospital is the American Family Children’s Hospital located on Highland Avenue.
Dr. Bradley was also instrumental in encouraging outdoor education. In 1931, a committee consisting of Dr. Bradley, the student union’s director, a staff member, and three students joined forces to promote outdoor activities and to provide access to recreational equipment. Wisconsin Hoofers, with a name suggesting its members go places under their own power, was born. Today, Hoofers at the UW is one of the largest student recreation organizations in the country, with 2,200 members, and a lounge in the Memorial Union is named after Dr. Bradley. Additionally, a UW student residence hall bears Bradley’s name.
The Bradley House was one of Sullivan’s last residential commissions and a prime example of Prairie School design. Prairie School was a late 19th and early 20th century architectural style with roots in Chicago. The style, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan’s student, was most common in the Midwest, but its influence was felt around the globe.
The Prairie School style integrates with the surrounding landscape. Horizontal lines of the design are meant to join with the native prairie. Flat or hip roofs have broad eaves, windows are assembled in horizontal bands, construction and craftsmanship is solid, and decorative elements are restrained.
In the Bradley House, steel cantilever beams encased in wood support the sleeping porches at the east and west ends of the home. The cantilever ends are terminated by signature Sullivanesque ornamentation—decorations that are intricate and detailed, yet orderly and organized. The house is t-shaped, with its main block running along the side of the property. The exterior is organized around massive brick piers rising from the foundation to the cornice.
The house suffered a devastating fire in March 1972, resulting in the loss of a substantial portion of the second floor and the roof. Only a few of the house’s 21 residents were present at the time, and no one was injured. After the fire, an engineering firm assessed the damage and pronounced the Bradley House basically sound. When the question was raised if the members of Sigma Phi wanted to take the time, trouble, and expense to restore the house, the answer was a resounding yes.
“The young men of the fraternity who were left homeless by the fire were less concerned by the loss of their possessions than they were by the damage done to the house,” wrote Jill Moore Marx in a July 1972 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal. The house was completely restored, and the Sigma Phi fraternity was awarded a citation by Governor Patrick Lucey for its work during Wisconsin’s Historic Preservation Week in May 1974. The fraternity also received an orchid award—given for building, revitalizing, and preserving the best of the past and present—from Capital Community Citizens.
Sigma Phi member and early resident of the Bradley House Arthur C. Nielsen, Sr., was a 1918 UW graduate, captain of the varsity tennis team, and founder of the AC Nielsen Company. In 1957, the company became synonymous with television ratings under the leadership of his son, Arthur C. Nielsen, Jr., who was also a tennis player, Sigma Phi member, and Bradley House resident. Nielsen Sr. was the major donor to the Bradley House restoration while his son donated funds to build a library in the basement and supported ongoing house maintenance. The Nielsen family also donated the Nielsen Tennis Stadium to the UW.
Today, 30 men are active members of Sigma Phi, but not all live in the Bradley House. The members have a wide variety of majors: economics, microbiology, retailing, film, math, business, and many types of engineering. While having a long tradition, Sigma Phi has been very conservative regarding expansion. Presently, there are only 10 chapters in the country. Sigma Phi prefers to remain small in numbers within each of its chapters so members can fully interact with one another. The Bradley House, able to accommodate about 20 men, is consistent with the philosophy of the fraternity. At the end of each semester, the residents change rooms and roommates to experience a different living environment and to get to know other members better.
To care for the National Landmark, essentially a fine work of art, all Sigma Phi members (including nonresidents) are assigned weekly housework to keep the house functional and clean. “The community is what makes Sigma Phi great,” says Macklin O’Neil, an undergraduate brother. “We are small enough, so we can be more connected and engaged than larger fraternities. We get a chance to truly know other brothers, alumni, and those from other states.”
A fraternity house might not be what Sullivan envisioned when designing Bradley House, but the continuing legacy of what this building means to individuals across Madison is something to be proud of.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.