From Water Pumps to Apartments

Madison Waterworks – Nichols Station

1912 Postcard

By Michael Bridgeman

As a water pumping station transformed into apartments, Madison’s Nichols Station is a fine example of adaptive reuse—giving new life to a building that has outlived its original purpose. Nichols Station is a centerpiece of this years Specialty Tour of the Old Market Place Neighborhood set for Sunday, Sept. 22. You’ll find details here.

The building on East Gorham Street that stands today replaced the first pumping station from 1882, seen here in a postcard view (click photos to enlarge).

The new pumping station dates to 1917. It was designed by Balch & Lippert, a Madison firm with a long record of commercial and residential work. Their design was driven by utilitarian needs, yet they gave the building a kind of grandeur and added a touch of the Prairie School, especially in the decorative detailing of the corner pavilions.


Photo from Wisconsin Historical Society


This motif was carried through to auxiliary pumping stations that began to dot the city in the 1920s. A simplified version is seen here on the station on University Avenue at Franklin.


Photo by Michael Bridgeman


Named for Prof. M Starr Nichols who served on the Water Board for many years, Nichols Station was decommissioned in 1976. Five years later a headline in The Capital Times declared “Developers Hope Waterworks Will Make Splash as New Condos.” The early 1980s was a time of high inflation and skyrocketing interest rates, putting the brakes on projects across the country. Nonetheless, the new Nichols Station opened in 1984 with 34 apartments. One of two original steam pumps remained in the new lobby and a second was sent to the House on the Rock.

Nichols Station grew further in 1986 with 45 condominiums in a new building that wraps two sides of the original pumping station.


New building section. Photo by Michael Bridgeman


The bigger story of Madison’s water utility is fascinating and summarized nicely in a video on the Madison Water Utility’s website.

This year’s Madison Trust Specialty Tour spotlights adaptive reuse, Madison businesswomen, and Madison’s earliest African American community. For details and tickets, visit the website.