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15 S Bedford St

Fire at 15 South Bedford Street (1948)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-56122

Affordable Housing

The lack of affordable housing in Madison is nothing new. The housing situation after World War II was particularly bad. For example, the University of Wisconsin had to house students in trailers due to a lack of facilities. As reported by the Capital Times on July 31, 1948:

“Within the shadow of the state capitol, a Madison veteran of World War I is forced to live in a converted sleeping porch with his wife and three children. Fighting a daily battle with hordes of cockroaches and struggling nightly to keep rats out of his cramped living quarters, 46 year-old Clark Wiedener is not optimistic about the steps Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated legislature has taken to alleviate the housing shortage.” Wiedener and his family lived in an 18- by 9-foot room at 15 South Bedford Street. A total of twenty-seven individuals lived in the two-story building, twenty on the second floor which had only one bathroom. All the water used for cooking had to be carried from the bathroom. The landlord did not furnish trash cans, so tenants dumped rubbish on piles outside the building. “I think those legislators could have learned a lot about state housing needs by dropping in for a visit before they cast their votes,” Widener said.

In a horrible twist of fate, Wiedener’s building caught fire four months later on November 28, killing Florence Dinger, 32, and her children Judeen, 8, Billy, 5, and Shirley, 4. Only daughter Nancy, 11, escaped. An oil heater exploded, causing the fire. Twenty-seven members of seven families escaped, including fourteen small children. The Dingers lived in a 12- by 13-foot room. Florence and Nancy shared a studio couch; the other children had double-decker cots. They suffocated from the smoke. Nancy escaped after she broke out the second-story window with her fist and went onto the roof. Her mother went back to try to save her three children and died while so doing.

Mark Gajewski