A love for the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright lured me to Madison. The influence of his Prairie Style design is seen throughout the city, both in structures he created and in new structures built by those who realized his imprint on the region.
City leaders reached for plans that Wright sketched decades ago when they set out to build a convention center. Wright’s concepts for a “dream civic center,” originally designed in 1938, are incorporated into the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, completed in 1997. With its curvilinear forms, public promenades and rooftop gardens, this favorite Madison landmark dominates the downtown lakefront.
The Unitarian Meeting House in Madison was Wright’s own church and designated by him as one of his favorite designs. Horizontal bands of windows with wide overhangs give a sense of shelter and connect the outdoors with the interiors. The centerpiece is an ascending glass-and-wood prow, magnificently clad in copper. The stone structure was named a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
Architecture & more
Madison, the state’s capital city, has much to offer beyond architecture. On Saturdays, shoppers converge on Capitol Square for the Dane County Farmers Market. Growers, bakers and artisans have hawked their wares at this spot since 1972. Free, one-hour tours of the State Capitol are well worth the time. With graceful arched hallways, the interior of the Beaux Arts building has decorative murals, hand-carved furniture and outstanding use of marbles and granite. The rotunda dome holds four glass mosaics.
Downtown food hot spots are tucked between museums, offices and department stores. A popular eatery, the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, serves a wide selection of handcrafted beers and specialties like the Brat & Bacon Pretzel Burger.
Check out the campus
State Street connects Capitol Square to the campus of the University of Wisconsin. Much to the pleasure of its student population, the university claims 2 ½ miles of lakefront. State Street is a hive of activity. People circulate from shops and brew pubs to attend music, dance and theater performances at the Overture Center for the Arts. The giant canvases at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art pack a punch. Exhibitions are free and frequently showcase emerging artists. Equally impressive is the Chazen Museum of Art on the university campus, with 20,000 works in its collection.
Downtown rests on an isthmus between Lake Monona to the east and Lake Mendota to the west. Cruises, such as the one offered by Betty Lou Cruises, present postcard-perfect views of the city. Lakeside restaurants, such as Captain Bill’s, serve up fresh-caught fish and local specialties. Many of the metropolitan area’s 450,000 residents spend time boating, fishing and water skiing.
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center features interactive exhibits and supports outdoor programs for people of all ages. An interpretive trail directs walkers through examples of native Wisconsin habitats and impresses them with the visions of the famed conservationist. The flight of a sandhill crane, a glimpse of a wildflower meadow or bellowing frogs in a pond — it’s all a part of the eye-widening allure.
The way into the rolling countryside and to the village of Spring Green is short and the list of reasons to go is long.
My pursuit of Frank Lloyd Wright leads to his world-renowned home, Taliesin. He built his private residence near Spring Green, 40 miles west of Madison, on land that had belonged to his family for generations. His aunts directed an innovative children’s boarding school there, which he later used for architecture and design students.
My tour is full of pinch-me moments: entering his living space, walking through his gardens, observing students at work in the light-filled drafting studio where his presence is still felt. The guide explains how Wright perceived space and designed in accordance to function, and over a span of 50 years, he modified and expanded Taliesin. Architecture critic Robert Campbell once called Taliesin “the greatest single building in America.”
Spring Green offers plenty to travelers who wish to linger. The tiny business district holds art galleries, a bookshop, a tea room, a general store and a flower shop. The deli at the Driftless Depot Market sells excellent sandwiches made with locally farmed organic foods.
More than 100,000 patrons each year attend stage productions of the American Players Theatre. It’s a well-established tradition to carry picnic baskets to the 110-acre site and have dinner in the woods before plays begin. The professional company puts on eight plays each season at the 1,148-seat outdoor theater and in the indoor Touchstone Theatre.
Spring Green is seductive to sightseers in pursuit of the bizarre. The House on the Rock delivers more thrills than a theme park with its amazing collections of toys, music machines, carousels, nautical artifacts and aviation memorabilia.
A cluster of shops in the historic downtown includes vintage clothing and jewelry boutiques. Bakeries, bars and restaurants have a loyal following.