No building since the Capitol has meant more to Madison than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace, and no building ever meant more to Wright. 1967 would see a stunning statement of architectural ambition by his successor, a fitting legacy to the world’s greatest architect.
The proposed auditorium and civic center at the end of Monona Avenue above Law Park had gone through a staggering set of twists and turns since Wright first advanced the idea in 1938.
There was the three-part 1954 referendum that approved a $4 million facility to be designed by Wright at Law Park/Olin Terrace; there was state legislation in 1957 which killed the project by setting a height limit of 20 feet, until it was repealed two years later; there was Wright’s 1959 design, just weeks before his death, which proved a budget-buster when it went out to bid in 1961; there was the “yes-means-no” referendum in 1962, in which voters agreed that they wanted to terminate all plans for Monona Terrace and find another site; there were four years under anti-Monona Terrace Mayor Henry Reynolds when nothing much but litigation and political maneuvering got done. Finally, in 1966—a full decade after Wright signed a contract with the city—Mayor Otto Festge engineered an agreement for Wright’s Taliesin Architects, Ltd. to draft a master plan from Law Park to Olin Park across Lake Monona. Naturally, there was another lawsuit challenging the contract—from atty. Carroll Metzner, who as State Rep. had sponsored the 1957 bill—but Taliesin’s lead architect (and widower of Wright’s step-daughter) William Wesley Peters kept working, and the lawsuit was dismissed in September.
And then an early civic Christmas present—Wesley’s grand (and grandiose) plan for Monona Basin, extending elements of Wright’s design over nearly three miles of lakeshore and causeway.
At Law Park/Olin Terrace, the core complex of three buildings—a 2,350-seat civic auditorium, a 1,000-seat theater, and a large exhibition space/banquet hall. Across the water at Olin Park, a pond/boat-launching facility, another theater, an art center, and a small recital hall. At the far right, a public marina and large community center, updating a Wright design from 1893.
In the central facility, Peters improved on one of Wright’s basic concepts—he placed the convention center, rather than the large auditorium, in the middle, so he could lower the building’s profile and preserve the lake view from the street.
Unfortunately, Peters also incorporated the worst element of Wright’s earlier designs—an inability to provide parking without ruining the view from inside. Peters put three levels of parking around the banquet room and lobby, between building and water. At its apogee, the ramp extended five hundred feet into the lake; with the bottom of the ramp only twenty feet above the water, there was hardly a view from inside of either lake or sky.
Still, response was largely positive. Those who hated Wright for personal reasons (such as octogenarian economic development activist Joe Jackson, who loathed Wright as a deadbeat leftist degenerate) or the Law Park site for political reasons (such as south side Ald. Harold “Babe’ Rohr, who wanted it all in his district at Olin Park) maintained their opposition, but support was strong enough that the council approved the master plan by late February, 1968.
Peters was drafting bid documents by that fall, and it appeared that Wright’s “wedding of the city and beautiful Lake Monona” would soon be consummated.
Appearances were deceiving.