When one looks out on the Dane County landscape today, it’s hard to imagine that a community like the Village of Shorewood Hills, just to the west of Madison, was once farmland a little over a century ago. But a young man, John Charles McKenna Sr., who came from a family of community builders, looked out on the land and saw a place to build a home for himself and others.
McKenna Sr. had moved to Madison with his family in 1901. The story is told that one Sunday afternoon, being homesick for the rolling hills on the Pecatonica River in his native Iowa County, he walked west. McKenna Sr. came upon a rustic bridge over a ravine that led to Lake Mendota. It was here that the 23-year-old envisioned a new community.
Two historic districts, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, make up Shorewood Hills. College Hills Historic District, the older of the two, is the eastern half of the village. The area was platted between 1912 and 1915 by McKenna Sr. The district is roughly bounded by University Bay, Harvard, and Amherst Drives and the corporate limit of Shorewood Hills. The Shorewood Historic District was platted, again by McKenna Sr., in the 1920s. Its boundaries are Lake Mendota Drive, Tally Ho Lane, Shorewood Boulevard, and the Blackhawk Country Club. In 1927, residents voted to consolidate the two plats, and the Village of Shorewood Hills was born.
McKenna Sr.’s family had been involved in real estate for two generations before him. His great uncle was John Falls O’Neill, born 1792, who moved to Mineral Point in 1827 with his wife when that city was being established. According to newspaper accounts, O’Neill bought up much land and built a lovely two-story home named O’Neill’s Grove. Being an engineer, he was credited with using his skill to lay out Mineral Point. O’Neill was one of three commissioners, along with James Doty and Augustus Bird, who supervised the building of Wisconsin’s capitol building in Madison in 1837.
O’Neill’s sister, Sarah, born 1805, married Francis McKenna, born 1802, in Ireland. They came to America and eventually settled in Iowa County in 1846. Francis McKenna and two others built roads from Mineral Point in the township that would become Waldwick in 1848. Then in 1860, eastern sections of Waldwick were organized into a separate township, Moscow. McKenna was elected its first chair that same year.
Sarah and Francis McKenna had a son, John Falls McKenna, born 1834. He ran a large stock farm near Blanchardville for many years before moving his family to the east side of Madison. This John McKenna was involved in the real estate business in Madison until 1913.
John Charles McKenna Sr. joined his father in the real estate business in 1905. Then in 1912, he started his own University Bay Land Company. McKenna Sr. purchased a 68.5-acre portion of the Jacob Breitenbach farm in the Town of Madison and platted residential lots.
Calling the plat College Hills, McKenna Sr. named the streets after either American or English colleges and universities. His intent was to emphasize the relationship of the new suburb to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also wanted to appeal to the well-educated elite. “A Neighborhood of High Class Homes” and the “Plat that Appeals to Good Judgment and Sentiment” were some of the advertisements that McKenna Sr. put out to sell the lots. McKenna Sr.’s grandson, John C. McKenna III, thinks it likely that his grandfather was competing with the older suburb of University Heights to the west and adjacent to the UW campus where many UW faculty and staff lived. McKenna Sr. probably hoped his development would entice the same folks since the UW was expanding and enrollment was growing.
Ossian Cole Simonds, well-known Chicago landscape architect, was hired by McKenna Sr. and developed a plan that included irregular-shaped lots and organic, curvilinear streets. John III relates that his father, John C. McKenna Jr., told him how McKenna Sr. would walk the land with his designer carrying a bundle of wood lath, pounding a piece into the ground where a house should be.
McKenna Sr.’s vision for College Hills was helped with deed restrictions. No more than one dwelling could be built on a lot, no house could cost less than $3,000, and no trees and shrubs could be planted without being approved by McKenna Sr.’s company. One exception was made for McKenna Sr.’s barber, whom he visited daily for a shave. The barber bought a lot and built a small cabin on it.
But there was no restriction on the style of the house. According to the National Register nomination, “Period revival style homes mix harmoniously with neighbors designed in both the earlier progressive styles (Prairie School, Arts and Crafts, American Craftsman) and later contemporary style buildings. Many of the houses in the district are also the work of prominent Madison and regionally notable architects.”
Lots in College Hills sold slowly, but that didn’t deter McKenna Sr. In 1914, he purchased another 30 acres contiguous to the original plat from the farmer Lewis Post. That same year, he built a house for himself. Within a year, he sold that house and built another close by. McKenna Sr. built a total of three houses in College Hills.
John III tells how he learned from his father what happened when World War I broke out. John Sr. came home from work one day, threw the newspaper on the porch where his son was sitting, and said, “I’m ruined.” Even after declaring bankruptcy, he kept going, according to John III. “My grandfather had no plan B, nothing to fall back on.” Over a period of 15 years, and with the aid of his son, John Jr., McKenna Sr. paid all he owed—with interest.
McKenna Sr. stayed in the real estate development business and created the Eagle Heights Land Company in 1921. He purchased a strip of land along the Lake Mendota shoreline and called his new plat Shorewood Hills. Proceeds from the sale of these lots were used to purchase more land to the south. By 1929, there were five additions to the original plat. Eventually, all the land between railroad tracks to the south; Lake Mendota to the north; the original College Hills plat to the east; and Blackhawk Country Club to the west, built in 1921, became the entire plat.
On July 27, 1927, in an article in the Wisconsin State Journal the writer noted concerning John McKenna Sr., “He has spent his life, his energy, his thoughts, and his soul in the building of Shorewood Hills, and it has paid him. In money, yes. But in satisfaction, happiness, and the feeling that he has done his level best and completed that which he started, much more.”
“My grandfather left Shorewood Hills because he thought he did all that he could do there,” says John III. McKenna Sr. continued in real estate development with his sons, John Jr. and Donald, until his death in 1949. Some of his other developments in the Madison area include Sunset Hills and Westmorland as well as Quaker Heights, Homestead Highlands, and Frost Woods in Monona. When McKenna Sr. died, one of the long residential streets in Monona was named McKenna Road in his honor.
Watch for the next issue, where some of the more well-known residents of Shorewood Hills who built the original homes will be featured.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.