Let’s not bury the only Frank Lloyd Wright we have downtown

May 10, 2013 |

House - Butler St N, 22 - Robert Hartmann c

Two proposals are in the works for the block, just off the Square, where our only downtown Frank Lloyd Wright building is located. We need to be very attentive to these proposals, and to future development on this block. We should commit to protecting the dignity of the Robert Lamp House, and avoid enshrouding it in a silo of monolithic buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright is this best-known and most influential architect in American history. Southern Wisconsin is Wright’s homeland, and the source of his aesthetic inspiration. Wright spent his youth here in Madison, his early career in Chicago and settled at his ancestral home near Spring Green. Madison has a share of Wright-designed buildings – seven homes and the Unitarian Meeting House. Wright’s innovation and completely novel approaches to crafting buildings and defining interior space has a powerful attraction even as his early work is crossing the 100-year mark. People travel the world just to see and experience Wright’s buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright is the golden touch for heritage tourism.

We have one of Wright’s houses in downtown Madison, just two blocks off the Square. If you didn’t know that, you have a good excuse. The 1903 house was built on a parcel at the interior of a residential block. In order to see it you have to look through the spaces between other houses on N. Webster St., E. Mifflin St. or N. Butler St. You can’t see it at all from E. Washington. Here’s an aerial view of the block from Google.

Proposals

There are currently two proposals for higher-density developments on this block. One is for a five-story apartment building on N. Webster St. that would demolish four houses built between 1872-1904.  The other is for a hotel tower on the corner of N. Webster and E. Washington where the Pahl Tire Co. shop is now located.  If these proposals are approved the Lamp House would be further encapsulated by larger and taller buildings.

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Don’t get me wrong, height is not the issue here, but rather the monolithic nature of construction closing in around our only downtown Wright. The Lamp House was built on an interior parcel, but it’s a relatively tall and compact design intended to provide views out over the other residences on the block, and the permeability and traditional scale of this residential block has always provided surprising and unexpected views to and from the house.

If these two proposals are approved, the Lamp House will be completely obscured on two sides by buildings that rise 2-7 stories above it.  It will fall deeper into obscurity, and its power to attract cultural tourists to downtown Madison will be further diminished. There is still a good deal of permeability and complementary scale on the Mifflin St. and Butler St. sides of the block. And the 200 block of Mifflin St. is a wonderful transition from the Square to the strong Tenny-Lapham neighborhood.

The city should commit to compelling and incentivizing the rehabilitation of the remaining traditional houses on this block, and to a strategy that would avoid obscuring the Lamp House in a silo of redevelopment.

Criticism

MTHP submitted this letter after reviewing the five-story apartment proposal.

The statewide heritage tourism organization, Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin, submitted this letter letter urging the rehabilitation of the houses on N. Webster St.

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