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University Heights

University Heights (1898)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-2225


In the 19th century Madison was largely an isthmus city, confined between the Yahara River on the east and Camp Randall on the west. Today’s Tenney Park was the Thornton estate; the university football stadium, such as it was, paralleled University Avenue; the Monona Lake Assembly grounds occupied the site of today’s Olin Park, accessible from the city only by boat, train, or a long carriage ride around the lake.

As the century drew to a close, two forces converged to transform Madison. The first was overcrowding on the isthmus, resulting in escalating land prices and increased building density, which led people to look past the city’s boundaries for housing. The second was the expansion of the city’s streetcar network, which made it possible for the average working family to move about the city easily. Enterprising businessmen began buying up farmland adjacent to the city and platting it as residential suburbs.

In 1889 builder and real estate promoter William T. Fish created the suburb of Wingra Park. Bounded by Garfield and Chandler streets on the north, Warren and Lake Wingra on the east, Lake Wingra and Edgewood Avenue on the south, and Monroe Street on the west, it offered a full view of all public buildings in Madison. It was the “most desirable, best located, most healthful and easiest of access of any suburb of Madison,” and Fish promised that the “property will double in value every three years.” Eighty lots were disposed of in 1890 and he expected double that this year. He advertised that “persons whose children are UW students can buy and build in Wingra Park and then live rent free through the end of the school term.”

By 1893 the streetcar company announced plans to extend the line to Camp Randall and ultimately to Wingra Park. That same year Breese Stevens sold 106 acres just west of Camp Randall to the University Heights Company for $106,000. McClellan Dodge, a local surveyor, laid out a curvilinear plat, Madison’s first, that took advantage of the unique hilltop topography. The plat was put on the market on May 14, 1893, and within two weeks half the lots had been sold. Close to the rapidly expanding university, the suburb attracted UW professors and administrators in droves; famed economist Richard T. Ely purchased the first lot. The first house was built in 1894 by Charles Buell, a local attorney. Skeptics who believed the city would never actually expand that far west called his home “Buell’s Folly.” In 1903 the plat was officially annexed to Madison.

By 1903 there were thirteen land companies incorporated in Madison, with total capital of $378,000. They were led by some of Madison’s most prominent businessmen – Breese Stevens, Moses Klauber, Carl Johnson, W. A. P. Morris, and Leonard Gay among them. Beginning in July of that year three suburbs began vigorously advertising in Madison’s newspapers to attract buyers – West Lawn, Fair Oaks, and South Madison.

On July 21, 1903, ads announced the sale of lots in the city’s newest suburb - West Lawn. Nestled between University Heights and Wingra Park, and bounded on two sides by the all-important streetcar tracks, it featured 72 acres of beautiful, undulating land. The suburb was named after the farm of its original owner, U. S. Congressman Henry Cullen Adams. “It lies far back from the factories and distracting noises of a growing city. West Lawn is especially recommended to professional, business and University men – to lawyers, doctors, bankers, merchants and professors.” Prices ranged from $300 to $550 - $100 down and the balance at $100 per year at 6% interest, or $8 per month. Even before the opening announcement twenty lots had been sold.

While West Lawn courted the professional, its rival east side suburb, Fair Oaks, sought the working man.

In 1902 there had been only a single farmhouse on a large tract of land east of the Yahara River, but by July 1903 more than 100 people lived there. “Fair Oaks is the best Madison investment because Fair Oaks is Madison’s fastest growing suburb.” Fair Oaks, the proprietors claimed, “will be much bigger in another year because the two new factories now being constructed in the area will employ between 300 and 500 people.” The new Shredder Company was expected to bring 50 to 75 jobs; the American Plow shop another 100; and the expansion of the Northern Electrical Company shop another 100. As proof of Fair Oaks success, the owners noted that fifty lots had been sold in the past two weeks, leaving only 97 of the original 450 available.

A month later South Madison, “an attractive suburb growing in favor,” struck back with ads of its own. “South Madison expects to grow because it will have a business center of its own, railroad facilities second only to the city, and its own school system. The price of lots has gone up 200% in the last eight years, and will double in the next five years.”

Mark Gajewski