Madison’s Hovde thinks big and bold

The indentured servants at the Stately Manor are agog at the prospect of a dramatic, 10-story, LED art installation on the face of the former telephone company building at 316 W. Washington Ave. in downtown Madison.

This is the kind of story that my old editor, the sainted Dave Zweifel, calls “a talker.” It will keep people buzzing for weeks about it as they ply the Keurig machine in the company cafeteria.

Fred and Ginger, Prague

Eric Hovde’s 123-foot electronic waterfall is the kind of bold thinking that will do more for this city than that “glorified farmers market” Mayor Soglin is championing. Great cities need bold signatures. The St. Louis Arch, the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument, the “London Eye” Ferris wheel. None particularly practical, but indelible identifiers of their cities. Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger Building did not need to be so striking, but it’s one of the things that identifies Prague.

Madison’s signature, of course, will always be the State Capitol — the most beautiful in the nation. Constructed in the extinct Beaux-Arts style between 1903–17, who would build that today? For a failure of imagination, just look at the Dane County Courthouse, built a decade ago. One of my great regrets. (There are many.) Love that concave window (apparently it’s difficult to clean) but the rest of it gets in its own way. It is incoherent, fussy, and is shoehorned into an impossible, hillside site. All because Dane County wouldn’t rip down “affordable housing.”

Failure of nerve or of imagination?

The problem with too much taxpayer-financed art and public buildings today is that by the time they emerge from too many subcommittee meetings and public hearings the originality and daringness as been squeezed out of them. The result is undifferentiated gruel, bland and unseasoned. (MATC’s main campus, Memorial High School, UW’s West Campus Student Union compare unfavorably to East High and the Memorial Union, for instance.) And don’t get me started on the Nail’s Tales monument off Camp Randall Stadium. (At least it’s daring, although sometimes daring does fail.)

By contrast, “Frank’s Place,” aka Monona Terrace, is a stunner. Mayor Paul Soglin and County Board chairman Brother Mike-boy were prime movers in getting that built in 1997 but it took a toll: 60 years of hair-pulling, name calling, and back biting. Even Grandfather Blaska opposed the Frank Lloyd Wright project when it was offered to the county in 1938 as the new seat of government. The current City-County Building, built in the mid-1950s, is the very embodiment of blah. Compromise is always dull.

A small whimsy on Madison’s neareast side locates Madison in the scheme of things.

Monona Terrace announces downtown Madison as one approaches from the south on Monona causeway (itself a cause celebré in the 1950s). A white-and-blue-frosting birthday cake. It really does connect the Square with the lake. Bless Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi for making the fountains flow. You could hold meetings in a warehouse but would it be as much fun?

That daring leap of imagination jump-started downtown Madison’s revival. Architect Kenton Peters responded by rehabbing the massive Reynolds Transfer moving and storage building on Wilson Street in 1998 into high-end condos with views of Lake Monona. Imagine that! (How outraged were city alders when Peters exceeded its arbitrary height limitation by 12 feet!)

Rowland-Frautschi’s Overture Center, designed by world-famous architect Cesar Pelli, is also an architectural success. Subtle but sublime and still confidently majestic.

Give Curt Brink kudos for unlocking the potential of East Washington Avenue on the other side. He transformed an old factory (by then a buy-sell shop) into a multi-venue food, drink, and entertainment center. A few years later, the 12-story Constellation and the 14-story Galaxie high-rises (for Madison) went up on the other side of the avenue, abutting this city’s version of Wrigley Field, the restored Breese Stevens Field.

Give credit to County Board chairperson/lady Sharon Corrigan and County Clerk Scott McDonnel for thinking big about the future of the Alliant Energy Center as a retail/large event/entertainment hub. Connect it, say the white lab coats here at the Policy Werkes, to the Isthmus via a monorail.

So, thank you Mr. Hovde, for opening up the once-Brutalist AT&T building and jump-starting the city’s creative juices. His electric waterfall suits Madison’s watery theme, built as we are between two lakes.



Dare to imagine big

Has Madison’s public art been left to the government sector? That is why Hovde’s architectural folly (in the best British sense) intrigues. (The Thai pavilion at Olbrich Gardens is another such.) Maybe not art so much as whimsy.

Ideas, In Business junkies. What would enliven Madison’s urban landscape?

Commercial but a tourist draw just the same.

I’m thinking of the Las Vegas strip where the winking neon cowboy lassoes the leggy lass. That would go over big in Hillary Clinton’s Madison! Or how about the smoker on New York’s Times Square, complete with puffs of faux cigarette smoke? Politically incorrect is an under-statement. To prime your creative pumps, we ran the data through Ol’ Sparky, our past-warranty Eisenhower-era mainframe. Here are its short-circuited findings:

  • An animatronic of old Fighting Bob endlessly pounding his right fist into the palm of his left hand while standing atop a hay wagon. (Rendered to more closely resemble the terrifying Wizard in the Land of Oz, complete with sulfurous flames.) Perched atop 1901 Fish Hatchery Road.
  • Last Toke of the Unknown Hippie, at the entrance to Willy Street. Attired in tie-dyed T-shirt and frayed jeans, his pipe emits a harmless vape product from its brass hash pipe.
  • Neon-outlined pedestrian construction crane. A permanent nod to Madison’s building renaissance. Up to a dozen patrons enter its enclosed cab at street level, are then elevated 280 feet for a visual tour of Downtown Madison. They hover for a time over Lake Monona and culminating with a close, up and personal face-to-face with the statue atop the Capitol (often misidentified as Miss Forward). Part carnival Tilt-o-Whirl, patrons can activate its optional, high-speed spin cycle for another quarter.

A prophet without honor in a savage land, that’s Your Humble Squire. Or is it Paladin?

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.