In the early 1900s, the only recourse a worker who got hurt on the job had was to sue the employer and prove the injury was due to an unsafe work environment. Since many employees injured at work could not afford to go to court, they usually were forced to deal with lost wages, find another job, or live with a permanent disability. That is not the case today.
Wisconsin workers can thank John R. Commons, a University of Wisconsin–Madison economics professor, for drafting legislation establishing Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation program, which contributes to workers’ financial well-being. The law, passed in 1911, was the first of its kind in the nation.
With a sense of social justice that had been instilled by his father, Commons arrived at UW–Madison in 1904 and stayed until his retirement, in 1933. At that time, the UW had a close relationship with then Governor Robert M. La Follette’s Progressive Party. To support the governor’s reform programs, Commons didn’t just theorize; he went into the real world and talked to working people. To implement worker’s compensation, he presented his policy ideas to sympathetic employers. Once his ideas proved workable, he campaigned for wider application of the policy and state support for the employers who would apply the policy.
In 1913, at the height of his personal prosperity, John and his wife, Nell Commons, built a spacious two-story raised bungalow on a hilltop in Madison’s Spring Harbor neighborhood. The John R. Commons house, also known as “Hocheera,” a Ho-Chunk Nation term meaning “welcome,” is a Madison Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The wooden frame of the house is sheathed in stucco on the first floor and in wooden shingles on the second. On two walls, a decorative board parallels the roof line. Dormer windows are on opposite sides of the second floor, and a chalet-style balcony connects to the master bedroom on that floor. According to its National Register nomination, “[The John R. Commons House] exhibits Craftsman [alternatively California bungalow] and Prairie School influences with its low projecting roof and wide eaves with exposed rafter ends.”
Five-sided window openings on a 40-foot-long enclosed sleeping porch, characteristic of the bungalow style, provide a view toward Lake Mendota. French doors connect the porch to the living-dining room that spans the length of the house. The first floor includes a kitchen, two entry hallways, and a coat and powder room. The study, where Commons wrote his major works by longhand, has the original floor-to-ceiling oak shelves and cabinets, oak floor, and brick fireplace.
The second floor includes four bedrooms. Another bedroom in the basement was originally a garage. Subsequent homeowners have rented the upstairs and basement bedrooms over the years. Commons frequently entertained graduate students, his “Friday Niters,” in his home. This tradition of welcoming scholars has continued with the current owners, Doris and Richard (Dick) Dubielzig.
The Dubielzigs have owned the John R. Commons House since 1983. Having taken a position at the new UW School of Veterinary Medicine that year, Dick preceded Doris to Madison and started looking for a house. Doris had been researching the history of their home in Springfield, Pennsylvania, and was reluctant to leave. But Dick, a Madison native, found the Commons House about a mile from his childhood home and learned that his father had actually been inside the house while Commons lived there. “I thought Doris would be intrigued by the history of the man who built the house too,” says Dick.
The private residence is located on a one-way street lined with a small community of tree-laden properties—a country feel for Dick, and a city location for Doris. Because the Dubielzig’s daughter suffered from asthma at the time, the fact that the house had radiator heating was a plus along with its historic associations.
Doris found abundant resources to achieve city landmark status for the John R. Commons House and to get it listed on the National Register. “John Commons’ secretary was still alive. Harry Miller, now-retired reference archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, was working on letters between Commons and his mentor, Richard T. Ely. He put me in contact with Commons’ daughter, who was living in Ithaca, New York. I also learned about Cora Tuttle, the home’s architect, from recollections provided to Robert Shockley by Tuttle’s son, Ray,” Doris says.
Cora Tuttle, the first woman architect practicing in Madison, brought the California bungalow style here. As an amateur architect, Tuttle learned carpentry from her father, artistic composition from her mother, and mechanical drawing in college, according to Shockley’s writing in The Journal of Historic Madison, Inc. of Wisconsin in 1978. Tuttle designed her own home in the Vilas neighborhood as well as several others nearby, often collaborating with others of differing talents to let them improvise on her basic designs.
The Dubielzigs have made changes to the interior of the John R. Commons House, including a major kitchen remodel in 2005. “That remodel made the space so much better to work in,” says Doris. “We also put a deck on the garage that had been attached to the house in the 1930s. Our designer, Jill Kessenich, took the pattern of the railing on the balcony off the master bedroom and replicated it for the required garage deck railing. She also designed a pergola that replaced the one that had been removed from the front entrance after Commons sold the house in 1937. But the biggest change was insulating the house. What a difference that made—no longer drafty and uncomfortably cold in the winter nor hot in the summer.”
Finding artisans to do the maintenance and restoration work on the house has been a challenge for the Dubielzigs, but they have not regretted owning a historic home. Dick and Doris say, “It’s been a great house to live in, so flexible. The John R. Commons House has been very welcoming and accommodating.”
Dick’s advice for anyone wanting to purchase a historic house: “Fall in love with history. You’ll need that for motivation to maintain the house.” Of course, one doesn’t have to own a historic house to appreciate what it represents. From the architect to its first owner, the John R. Commons House can be the jumping-off point for examining Madison’s architecture, the Wisconsin Idea (that education should influence people’s lives beyond the classroom), and much more.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.