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Madison’s Near East Side To Be Highlighted For Tour Of Oldest Homes

April 9, 2012

I LOVE this.

In June something exciting will happen in Madison when the Third Lake Ridge neighborhood on Madison’s Near East Side will be highlighted for their old homes.  A conference, “Nature + City: Vernacular Buildings & Landscapes of the Upper Midwest” will take participants on a tour of humble homes of Wisconsin settlers.

“Third Lake Ridge was a working-class neighborhood,” said Anna Andrzejewski, an associate art professor at UW-Madison who has been planning the conference for five years with a committee of about a dozen colleagues, students and community members. “We want to call attention to the ordinary, the everyday. Madison’s history is not just Mansion Hill. The purpose of the forum is to generate interest in these homes within the community.”

It’s not known exactly how many of Madison’s earliest homes still stand. Most are now camouflaged beneath decades of remodeling. Some were farmhouses whose acreage was whittled away over time.

But last year, some of the city’s earliest and simplest residences, built in Third Lake Ridge near Lake Monona in the mid-19th century, received special scrutiny from local historians and Andrzejewski’s students in preparation for the conference. The students went to the homes thought to be the oldest. They measured them and drew floor plans and learned more about them by checking old documents. The drawings and reports will ultimately be included in a field guide.

Andrzejewski expects conference participants who haven’t spent time in Wisconsin to be surprised by what they discover. “It’s not just cows,” she said. “People don’t realize there was a lead industry here, and that Madison, since the beginning, was a cosmopolitan city that brought all kinds of people together.”

Some of Madison’s earliest houses have especially compelling stories. The little rental at 1113 East Mifflin St., for instance, is easy to overlook. Beneath its nondescript exterior, though, is something rare: a log cabin built in 1848. It was once the home of John Stoner, one of 36 men who built the first state Capitol in Madison. Unlike most of Madison’s pioneer-era dwellings, its existence was well-documented. Stoner wrote about the cabin in his diary, and it appeared in an 1852 drawing of the Capitol and the surrounding buildings.

Madison historian Gary Tipler heard rumors of the log cabin hiding within the house (which was moved to East Mifflin Street from its original site closer to the Square) and went to investigate. Among the clues he found was a huge crack in the plaster wall leading to the basement. Beneath it was a log.

Andrzejewski, who has been a member of the Vernacular Architecture Forum for 20 years, said she’d been getting pressure from other members of the group to organize a conference in Madison for many years. Forum members, which include historians and architects, study and preserve common buildings, usually not designed by architects.

“There’s so much interest in local history in Madison,” Andrzejewski said. “It has an active preservation community, much more so than other places in the Midwest.”

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