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On, Wisconsin!

Many years in the making, Buildings of Wisconsin is the latest volume in the celebrated Buildings of the United States series, a collaboration between the UVA Press and the Society of Architectural Historians that provides a state-by-state overview of our nation’s built environment. The book draws on the expertise of more than twenty contributors, including principal author Marsha Weisiger, and the Historic Preservation Office of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Nowhere is this collaborative spirit more apparent than in the volume introduction—fourteen essays written by a who's who of the state's eminent historians—which affords the reader an engaging, comprehensive look at the architectural heritage of Wisconsin from prehistory to the present. The brief excerpts that follow, from four of these introductory essays, offer a sampling of the book's content, from the vernacular to the spectacular. (Many entries from the book also appear in the BUS series’ online component, SAH Archipedia.)

Although the Arts and Crafts movement neither originated nor reached its peak here, it rooted deep in Wisconsin’s rich soil. Both the Prairie and Craftsman styles drew on the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement as well as developments closely linked to the state's history: Progressivism and environmentalism. In the early twentieth century, Wisconsin governor and later presidential candidate Robert La Follette became a standard-bearer for the national Progressive movement to expand democracy. Linked to that political current was a growing interest in conservation and environmental preservation, and here, too, the state stood at the forefront, molding some of the most influential environmental philosophers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, among them John Muir and Aldo Leopold. . . . Architect George G. Elmslie believed that architecture should be regional, local, communal, and personal. Collaborating with William Gray Purcell, Elmslie became not only one of the most prolific of the Prairie architects but also one of the most eclectic. The sense of human scale, low massing, natural materials, and attention to detail coherently link such diverse designs as the forward-looking Harold and Josephine Bradley House II (DA17) in Madison, the Gothic-detailed Community House at the First Congregational Church (EC3) in Eau Claire, and the simple Jump River Town Hall (TA1).

Frank Lloyd Wright, a native of Wisconsin and a very loyal son, was born at Richland Center in 1867. He spent teenage summers working on his uncle's Spring Green farm, and near there he later built his home, Taliesin (IA1), where he lived, worked, and farmed for almost fifty years. In Wisconsin, he developed his intense attachment to the landscape and to natural things that profoundly shaped his thinking and his architectural work for the remainder of his life. Land and landscape, rather than historicism, influenced his architectural ideas, and his buildings demonstrate his deep respect for natural materials, often indigenous to the region. . . . Later, his trans-Pacific sailings acquainted him with southern California, where he soon received important work, and where, in response to a different climate and landscape, he developed new forms and building techniques. Premonitions of this are already evident in his Wisconsin work, particularly the A. D. German Warehouse (RI5) at Richland Center and the Frederick Bogk residence (MI161) in Milwaukee. Here pre-Columbian, specifically Mayan, forms first appear, and they remained paramount in his work throughout the 1920s. In 1936, a former apprentice, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., persuaded his father to let Wright design their weekend house, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania. Simultaneously, at Racine, Wright was building the almost equally famous administration building for the Johnson Wax Company (RA18) as well as a large house, Wingspread (RA7; now a conference center), for Johnson Wax president Herbert Johnson. In 1944 he designed a Research Tower (RA18.1) for Johnson Wax. These commissions revitalized Wright’s career and provided the wherewithal to build, using local materials, primitive forms, and Fellowship labor, his long cherished dream of a home on the Arizona desert—Taliesin West.

A SENSE OF THE PLACE by William Cronon
To understand Wisconsin’s buildings in relation to their environment, it helps to think of the state as defined by a series of overlapping natural and human boundaries, each of which has profoundly shaped the landscapes. Geology, climate, vegetation, watersheds, transportation corridors, and, not least, the phases of American immigration history, have each played important roles in the evolution of the Wisconsin landscape, and each is reflected in the state’s architectural history. . . . The southern half of the state and the entire Lake Michigan shoreline, including the Door County peninsula, are underlain by younger sedimentary rocks that alternate between sandstones and a form of limestone called dolomite. Products of shallow seas in the post-Cambrian era, these provide some of the most familiar building materials in the state, especially the cream-colored rocks and bricks that gave Milwaukee its nickname, the “Cream City.” Southern Wisconsin dolomite provides the familiar color, texture, and pattern of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin (IA1) in Spring Green and his First Unitarian Society Meeting House (DA14) in Madison. (The bedding planes of this dolomite gave Wright the template for his preferred “organic” way to lay different kinds of stone and brick, so that one sees a ghost of a Wisconsin outcrop even in the masonry of Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.)

Art Deco, Moderne, and the International Style were all significant during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Modernist architects sought to incorporate technological advances in equipment, materials, and processes into rational, economic, and efficient new forms that they found appropriate to an industrialized economy. Further, many modernists were social idealists who believed that good architecture would improve the lives of its inhabitants and transform society. . . . Federally sponsored public works programs during the Great Depression spread new ideas and modern designs across Wisconsin. Madison’s State Office Building (DA23) is the most prominent example, but the Winnebago County Courthouse in Oshkosh (WN13) and the Outagamie County Courthouse in Appleton (OU5), among others, were built from federal funds in stripped and flattened classical forms and enriched with stylized Art Deco ornament. This Moderne aesthetic bridged a gulf between the purified geometry of the most advanced European modernism of the 1920s and the desire for didactic imagery historically associated with public buildings. Federally funded courthouses, city halls, public libraries, and post offices in the style appeared even in small communities, such as the Chippewa County Courthouse (CH2) in Chippewa Falls. Federal commissions offered the opportunity for leading architects, especially those from Chicago, to produce dramatic architecture in Wisconsin. Holabird and Root’s design for the Racine County Courthouse (RA12), the Forest Products Laboratory (DA28.9) in Madison, and the A. O. Smith Research Building (MI123) in Milwaukee are three examples.

Buildings of Wisconsin is available now. Visit SAH Archipedia for online versions of many of these entries. 

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