Agricultural Dean's Residence at Allen Centennial Garden

Photo by Kolin Goldschmidt

To ensure that the first dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison would not be lured away by another institution of higher education, the regents built him a house in 1896. Today, that Queen Anne-style house stands at 620 Babcock Drive on the UW campus. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1984.

The Queen Anne-style was popularized by English architects in the 19th century and mixed design elements from medieval times. In the United States, the style was prevalent from 1880 to 1910.

Set on a cut-stone foundation, the Agricultural Dean’s Residence is a two-story cream brick structure with a substantial attic. Its gothic details include gables on three sides featuring half-timber style trim and tall, narrow windows with a pointed arch at the top. A three-story conical tower on one corner reinforces the house’s asymmetry. Carved wood trim is predominant on the house. The second-story balcony over the front entrance shows delicate S-shaped curves and railings with a trefoil (three intersecting circles) pattern. Along with the medieval elements, the Dean’s Residence also includes groupings of two and three classical columns set on sturdy-cut stone bases that support the front-porch roof. Leaded glass is found on the foyer window and inner door. The National Register nomination notes, “Its external appearance has changed very little since it was built.”

The Dean’s Residence was designed by Madison architects Conover & Porter, who also designed the Red Gym and Science Hall (Conover with Koch) at UW as well as several homes in Madison. Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Claude, John Flad, and Alvan Small were among local architects who received training in the Conover & Porter firm.

“With its generous proportions and welcoming aspect, [the Dean’s Residence] is a typical house of its time,” according to the National Register nomination. “Its architectural significance lies in the fine details of its wood carving and the repetition of design motifs both inside and outside … an excellent example of the work of Conover & Porter.”

Photograph by Kolin Goldschmidt

Though the UW was founded in 1848, its College of Agriculture (today’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) was not officially established until 1889. The College’s first dean, William Arnon Henry, grew up on a farm in Ohio and was educated at Cornell University. He was recruited by the UW in 1880. Ever the champion for the UW, Henry attended farm meetings around the state. He brought seeds to the farmers and shared innovations from the experimental farm the UW had begun on Madison’s west side, which he also directed, in 1883. He urged Wisconsin farmers to send their sons to study agriculture at the UW.

Because of Henry’s ability to relate to both farmers and legislators, he secured funding for buildings on the campus of the College of Agriculture. Still standing are Hiram Smith Hall, Agriculture Hall, and the Stock Pavilion.

In 1885, Henry established a 12-week winter course providing a link between practical farming and research. The program continues today as the Farm and Industry Short Course. Another innovation in 1885 was the Farmers’ Institutes. UW educators traveled throughout the state to hold one- or two-day conferences on agricultural topics for farmers. These Institutes were the precursor of today’s Cooperative Extension and other outreach programs. All of the UW’s agricultural offerings were put together under the umbrella of a new College of Agriculture in 1889, with Henry as its head.

As Henry’s reputation grew, job offers from other universities began to come in. In order to retain him, his request for a house costing $10,000 was granted. After he took occupancy, Henry paid all future expenses for the house until his retirement in 1907.

Photograph by Kolin Goldschmidt

Three more deans after Henry lived in the house: Harry L. Russell from 1907 to 1930, Chris L. Christensen from 1930 to 1943, and Edwin B. Fred from 1943 to 1945. Russell was instrumental in organizing the Department of Bacteriology, the first of its kind in any major American university. Fred was named president of the UW in 1945 and held that position until 1958. Because the agricultural dean who succeeded Fred didn’t want to move onto campus, the Freds were allowed to remain, paying no rent, until Edwin B. Fred died in January 1981.

After Fred’s death, the Dean’s Residence became the office for the UW’s Agricultural Research Stations until 2012. Today, plans are for the Dean’s Residence to be transformed into a retreat and smaller conference center and an event and VIP reception venue.

Bill Mann, director of Conference Center and Mail Services for UW, reports, “The plans are to bring the [Dean’s] Residence back to the charm and elegance that was originally there. We are excited about this project being designed by Mead & Hunt, historic preservation specialists, and hope to have it finished by the fall of 2022, provided we get all the necessary approvals and funding. We see the renovation of the [Dean’s] Residence as an opportunity to complement the Garden while providing a unique venue for the campus.”

The Allen Centennial Garden comprises 2.5 acres and surrounds the Dean’s Residence. Dedicated in 1989, the opening of the Garden coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Horticulture Department (thus Centennial) and was named after its major donor, Mrs. Ethel Allen, herself a former member of the UW faculty.

Photograph by Kolin Goldschmidt

Josh Steger, horticulture director for the Garden, encourages visitors to the Garden, which is free and open to the public. “It feels like an oasis; you forget you’re in the middle of the city,” says Josh. It’s best to go to our website ( allencentennialgarden.wisc.edu ) to see hours and regular updates about requirements for visiting.”

Some of the oldest plants in the garden are Scots pine, Japanese larch, and ponderosa pine. It’s assumed these were all planted by Henry before 1900. Today, some 1,600 different species of plants grace the Garden throughout a typical year. Plantings are not changed significantly, according to Josh. “We edit and add to what’s already there. Annuals add a pop of color and texture to the perennial beds.

“The focus of the Garden has changed in the past decade. It’s more sustainable in terms of plant selection. We look for species that are low maintenance and drought tolerant. The Garden is continuing to evolve in an environmentally sound way that supports the ecosystem.”

When the Dean’s Residence was erected in the late 1800s, it was surrounded by open fields. Dean Henry would be pleased to see the beauty that envelopes his home today.

To navigate the various gardens within the Garden and to see images of some of the plants, go to allencentennialgarden.wisc.edu/about/plant-finder .

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.

Photograph by MOD Media Productions