Iconic architecture of downtown Madison, Wisconsin

Black and white photographs of historic Madison, Wisconsin architecture by Keith Dotson

When I moved to Madison in the mid-2000s, I quickly realized that it's a city with its own very distinct culture. For a relatively small city, it has quite a strong sense of itself — a college town, a government town, a Midwestern town, a beer and football town, an industrial town, a hardworking town with a Germanic work ethic and the equivalent zest for life, an outdoors and winter sports town . . . Madison is all of these and more. Some of the most interesting "characters" I have ever met were from Madison.

With all of that in mind, here are a few black and white photographs of some of the iconic downtown architecture that I fell in love with in my time there on the cold northern prairie.

The Suhr Building, 1887

Quoted from the historical marker: The Suhr Bank Building is an elegant example of the Italianate style applied to a commercial building. Designed by influential Madison architect John Nader, the building is of regularly coarse sandstone with a projecting cornice featuring pairs of scrolled brackets. The windows are ornamented with sandstone hoods and the main entrance has composite columns and a classical entablature. The building is also significant for its association with John Suhr, a German immigrant who established one of Madison's most successful early banks by serving the local German immigrant population.


The Christian Dick Liquor Wholesale Building (The 1889 Building)

With it's triangular lot and unique, conical roof, this building is immediately recognizable. Constructed in 1889 for German immigrant and liquor wholesaler Christian Dick at 106 East Doty Street in Madison, Wisconsin, this historic commercial building was designed by Madison architects Conover & Porter in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. This is one of Conover & Porter's earliest designs, and one of their longest surviving. Even though they designed over 150 buildings and homes between the 1880s and 1899, many have since been demolished.


Wisconsin State Capitol Building, "The People's House"

When I first arrived in Madison, I was amazed how much the citizens felt ownership and participation in every level of government. From school board to the statehouse, Madisonites are involved and invested in the actions of their government. At that time, the capitol was unbelievably accessible to the public, and had the nickname, "the people's house." The current capitol is the third and was completed in 1917.


The American Exchange Bank, built 1871

This three-story limestone bank was built in 1871, across the street from the state capitol on the site of a former hotel where the Wisconsin legislature held its first session. It has been the home of numerous banks and retail stores over the decades.


The Majestic Theater, 1906

Today The Majestic is a popular live music venue in downtown Madison, but it started as a vaudeville theater in 1906, and converted to a movie house in 1912. Ticket prices in the early years started at fifteen cents. Tragically, the owner's wife committed suicide on the same night a competing vaudeville theater opened in town. (Wikipedia)


To learn more about the historic architecture of Madison, I recommend this thorough, illustrated pamphlet (PDF) —  Madison's Pioneer Buildings: A Downtown Walking Tour  by John Gruber, with photographs by Jeff Dean.

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