Mosse Humanities Building ‘is like Dracula’

Mosse Humanities Building ‘is like Dracula’
Mosse Humanities Building on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus.

Those of us who have been around Madison for a while can be forgiven for not getting too excited about a recent front-page Wisconsin State Journal story with a headline noting the Mosse Humanities Building “could be demolished.”

The story lists Humanities as one of several aging University of Wisconsin-Madison structures that could be razed “in the not too distant future” as part of the latest Campus Master Plan.

The reason veteran observers might yawn at this news is that Humanities—opened in 1969, and located at University Avenue and Park Street—has been on death row for at least 13 years.

A sweeping campus construction plan announced in 2003 called for its demolition. The building houses the university’s music, history and art departments. Anticipating the demolition, then-Chancellor John Wiley said, “For the first time ever, our most aesthetically sensitive departments won’t be in our most bleak and ugly space.”

Wiley didn’t realize that the Humanities Building is like Dracula: You can’t kill it.

A better analogy might be to the house in the classic 1963 movie, “The Haunting,” starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, in which the house seemed to have a life of its own, and an evil one at that, as if intent on harming its inhabitants.

The building had problems from opening day, when, according to author Jim Feldman, two concerts celebrating the grand opening “were seriously marred by acoustical problems that would not be worked out for years.”

More seriously, students and faculty whose classes brought them into Humanities began to fall ill. A Cap Times headline from the 1990s read: “Toxic art: Profs say Humanities Building hazardous to health.”

The ventilation system was the culprit. Others complained about the heating and cooling. “In the late fall it’s really cold,” one student said, “but in the spring it’s like 85 degrees.”

I had several classes in Humanities in the 1970s and remember hallways that ended inexplicably, stairs that led nowhere— all this is in a building with almost no windows.

Of course, Humanities had its defenders. Whitney Gould, who wrote on architecture for newspapers in Madison and Milwaukee, noted in 2005 that there was something “brave, even heroic about the building, an example of the raw, monumental style of Brutalism.” 

In 2006, a piece in Preservation magazine titled “Embracing the Brute,” used words like “menacing,” “toxic” and “incoherent” to describe Humanities, but added, “even when you felt most lost, most trapped, you never forgot you were wandering inside a gigantic work of art.”

In 2010, a book about the Humanities architect, Harry Weese of Chicago, stirred more debate locally about the building’s fate, though Madison campus leaders were evidently in no rush to demolish it.

The book was titled The Architecture of Harry Weese, and I interviewed the author, Robert Bruegmann. He told me there was a strong faction at UW-Madison that was “really incensed” about the plan to tear down Humanities. Bruegmann came to Madison and spoke at Monona Terrace. His topic? “Buildings We Love to Hate.”

That same year, 2010, Chicago Magazine published a lengthy profile of Weese, who died in 1998, and I have to say that no matter what you think of Humanities, it’s a fascinating story. Weese’s career included more than 1,000 designs, including the Metro transportation system of Washington, D.C., which The New York Times called “among the greatest public works” of the last century. Weese was eventually undone by alcohol, scratching a note toward the end that spoke volumes: “I’m OK—the world’s all wrong.”

In his book on Weese, Bruegmann addressed the simmering plans to demolish the architect’s Madison creation: “If the Humanities Building can only survive a few more years, for example, it is almost certain that the University of Wisconsin will realize that it has at the very least a great period piece representing one of the most inventive and exciting eras of American architecture.”

That was written in 2010. The newest campus plan still suggests it needs to go. What will happen? My money’s on Dracula.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.