Wisconsin State Capitol ruins

Except this isn’t ancient Rome. This is what was left of the Wisconsin State Capitol’s senate chamber after it was gutted by fire in the middle of the night on Feb. 27, 1904. This eerie shot is stored in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s records with no photographer credited, but it was likely taken by a professional — in 1904, snapping a photo was no simple task. (Incidentally, just 23 years earlier, a farmer from Cambria, Wisconsin, invented the first roll film camera, an advancement that helped bring photography to the masses after Kodak founder George Eastman purchased several of the farmer’s patents — still, it wasn’t like everybody was wandering around carrying a box camera and a tripod.)

It’s a terrific shot. You can almost smell the charred rubble and picture the hot smoke vaporizing in the shocking Wisconsin cold as it rose above the ruins. Pull back the lens a bit and the fire might have felt nearly as significant as the fall of Rome. After all, the Capitol had taken forever to build. Construction started on Madison’s first Capitol building in 1837, but 20 years later it was deemed inadequate and they began work on a second building essentially on top of the first. Between 1859 and 1883, they simultaneously constructed and demolished, delayed by tragedies like the Civil War and the collapse of the South Wing addition, which killed five workers. In 1900, the State Historical Society moved out, citing the need for more space and, presciently, a fireproof facility. A state-of-the-art firefighting system was installed. But on that fateful February day at 2:30 a.m., a gas jet in a second-floor closet ignited freshly lacquered woodwork, resulting in a catastrophic blaze that Madison and Milwaukee firefighters battled for 18 hours. In the aftermath, this photo was taken and new plans were made, and though it wasn’t rebuilt in a day, in 1906, they broke ground once again on the Capitol that still stands.

Senior Editor

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior editor at Madison Magazine. Her long-form features have garnered numerous honors since 2006 including from the National City Regional Magazine Association, the Milwaukee Press Club and the American Society of Journalist and Authors. In addition to helping edit the work of Madison Magazine's contributing writers, freelancers and essayists, she writes features and the monthly Looking Back historical photo department page. Online, Maggie conducts monthly author Q&As and covers the local literary scene with her Sunday Reads monthly e-newsletter. Her own debut novel, "Still True," was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in September 2022. 

You can also find her on Instagram.