The Livingston Inn | Madison, Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast

Historic Preservation

Madison, Naturally

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Back garden at The Livingston Inn

It’s that time of year when summer is at its fullest. There are plenty of warm days where everyone is outside taking in the lakes, parks, events, concerts, and festivals. It seems every day, and well into the evening, downtown Madison is buzzing with people walking around, finding fun things to do and dining out at so many fantastic restaurants.

Coinciding with all this activity, it’s also the time of year in Madison when the plants, gardens, and trees seem to be at their peak. A neighbor calls this the “full riot of summer” where every plant and flower has shot up, has bloomed, is blooming, needs trimming, or is getting ready to grow more heading into fall. Walking around neighborhoods, parks, or through Olbrich Botanical or Allen Centennial Gardens, there is so much beauty in all the varieties of flowers and plants enjoying the summer.

At this time of year, though, I also often think about what Madison looked like before humans tamed it. What did it look like before trees were planted along streets, grass was seeded, and all types of plants and flowers, not necessarily native to the area, adorned the many manicured flowerbeds and gardens? Thankfully, there is a place right in our city to find that answer. The UW-Madison Arboretum sits on 1,200 acres on the near west side of Madison, and it’s a place where you can see firsthand what Madison may have looked like before an influx of settlers changes its landscape a couple hundred years ago. The Arboretum is a beautiful setting with an ecological restoration of the Upper Midwest prairie along with some traditional horticultural arrangements of labeled plants in garden-like displays.


Civilian Conservation Corps restoring farmland to prairie

Several well-known figures in Madison’s history had a hand in the making of the Arboretum, including John Nolen, Michael Olbrich, and Aldo Leopold. It’s important to understand the Arboretum is not on acreage untouched for hundreds of years. Instead, as first proposed by Nolen in 1911, it was the vision of early residents to take farmland in Madison and restore an historic ecological community. It was Olbrich who convinced the UW Board of Regents to aid in the land purchase of the first 246 acres acquired in 1932, growing to 500 acres two years later. Following the land purchase, the Depression-era Civilian Conversation Corps provided the supply of workers who turned the farmland into a prairie restoration.


Aerial view of UW-Madison Arboretum and Visitor Center

Through additional gifts and purchases, the UW-Madison Arboretum has grown to its present 1,200 acres and features an abundance of hiking trails as well as options for bikes, cars, skis, and snowshoes. The trails and roadways will take you through areas restored as if you were in Madison hundreds of years ago. An outing to the Arboretum may involve encountering wild turkeys, turtles and other wildlife, or in addition to the hiking trails, touring three of the gardens where you can discover an impressive variety of woody plants, Viburnum, arborvitae, and other native plants. There’s also an outstanding Visitor Center and plenty of volunteer and educational opportunities.

140922_juniper-knoll_1586SD_web-348x232Today the Arboretum is undoubtedly the gem of Madison. While we love our lakes, plentiful parks, and neighborhood communities, the Arboretum, while large in size, quietly holds its place among us. Many days most residents likely forget it’s there, some not noticing it even when going around its edges on Madison streets and highways. But when we need a refuge from the busy and growing city around us, it’s always waiting there for us, allowing us to take a peaceful walk through it and marvel at the beauty and simplicity of a natural ecosystem.

imagesYou can bike in the Arboretum and on Sundays drive through it from one side to the other, but the best way to enjoy the Arb is on foot. The website has an easy-to-read map noting parking lots for trailheads. An ideal first trip would be to drive to the Visitor Center and make time to hike through at least a couple of the gardens and then venture out onto one of the many hiking trails. If you like to ski or snowshoe, take note of areas you’d like to return to when winter comes to our area (note: some trails are for hiking only).

With summer in full bloom, I strongly encourage you to put a trip to the Arboretum on the top of your list. While the excitement of summertime in the city is all around us right now, including beautiful flowers and plants, the Arboretum is a perfect respite to take a few steps back in time and picture the natural beauty of our area. It’s an opportunity to enjoy it now and enjoy as it always was.



Boom Town, Part Two

Madison 1867

Madison 1867

In my last blog, I wrote about big changes happening in Madison over 150 years ago during the “Village Decade”. Among other things, I observed the similarities between those boomtown years and the growth and change we’ve seen in Madison during the past few years. While there are many glorious moments when a city prospers, there are also inevitable growing pains. In part two of this topic, I’ll share some interesting facts and challenges that were part of city life in the 1850s.

To call Madison a village at the beginning of this period of prosperity was likely accurate according to standards at the time. But Madisonians aspired for something more – to be designated as a “city”. Becoming a city meant you were in the league with already great American places like New York and Washington. With a thriving newspaper, a luxury hotel, fancy carriages, cabs, and gas streetlights, Madison certainly had acquired the “things” that made a city in the nineteenth century.

Capital House Hotel

Capital House Hotel

Besides the cache of calling itself the “City of Madison”, there were also practical, if not political, reasons for Madison to become a city. The village of Madison enacted a charter in 1846 but it soon found serious limitations on the ceiling for property tax rates. Even with other revenue sources like liquor licenses, fines, and special assessments, Madison lacked enough money to pay for fire engines, schoolhouses, a new cemetery, roads, and sidewalks. The charter also had jurisdictional issues with the town of Madison as well as unequal representation on the county board. To overcome these challenges, village leaders requested a city charter, eventually granted in 1856, for approval by the legislature. On March 7, 1856, the bill was signed into law and Madison officially became a full-fledged city.

As is true today, running a city also includes its fair share of problems, most of them caused by not enough money. One of the most talked about issues during the village decade was public schools. With Madison’s dramatic growth came too many schoolchildren and not enough schoolhouses and teachers. A twenty-by-forty-foot brick schoolhouse built in 1846 was still the only schoolhouse ten years later. Only a quarter of the school-aged children could squeeze into the little brick schoolhouse, so other students attended school in churches, a part of a carriage factory, and other various places around town. Besides the lack of space, teachers were also in short supply with a teacher-student ratio estimated at 1:125. Sadly, despite efforts to fund schools, very little progress was made during the village decade despite the prosperity that built fine churches, a Court House, and a costly jail.

Other problems during the village decade were streets and sidewalks. Dirt streets were either a rutted, muddy mess during rainy weather or very dusty in dry weather, making it unpleasant to breathe. Residents also used streets for free storage, so there was often an unsightly assortment of boxes, barrels, piles of wood, hay, ashes, and rubbish. Sidewalks at the time were the responsibility of the property owner to build. Very few did so, leading village trustees in 1855 to take responsibility for sidewalk construction.

Public sanitation and disease were a major issue during this period as in other US cities as well. Simply put, people just didn’t take sanitation seriously. Garbage and slops were often dumped in the streets, dead animals were many times allowed to decay wherever they dropped, and offal from the slaughterhouse was sometimes thrown in the lakes. Whether it smelled or looked bad, the only issue that caused the citizens to take action was disease. There were frequent cholera epidemics in the late 1840s and early 1850s, which led to quarantines, purifying streets and yards, and draining polluted standing water. Attempts were made to bring in piped water, which finally became a reality 30 years later.

There were also some more light-hearted challenges as Madison became a city. For one, the village cemetery, located at today’s Orton Park off Williamson Street, was too crowded and overrun with cows. Soon after the city charter was enacted, the common council established a new cemetery at Forest Hill, still there today near West High School.

forest_hill_office_DSC15662One other challenge I found entertaining was described by David Mollenhoff in one word: ruffianism. As Mollenhoff writes, “Madison’s remote location and rapid growth combine to attract a very rough class of people whose drinking, gambling, fighting, brawling, and swearing were notorious.” Newspaper editorials, settlers, and visitors described Madison as a place with “haunts of vice” and where “the best men in the state are sots”. A saloon census in 1853 discovered there was one saloon for every 90 residents. The rowdy behavior and drunkenness tempered somewhat as city leaders made various attempts to dry out Madison and fine anyone who sold liquor.

I hope you enjoyed this venture into a small part of Madison’s history and found it as intriguing as me when you look at our present-day city life. Compared to other places around the globe, Madison has a very short history, but as the introduction to Mr. Mollenhoff’s book states, “we are just beginning to understand the power of local history to enhance our understanding of ourselves, our cities, and our culture. It is, after all, this stratum of history that touches most of our lives most of the time.”  I am grateful that we have this history recorded from over 150 years ago and that Madisonians have worked tirelessly to preserve important buildings and parks as well as public policy and city resources. In the year 2166, 150 years from today, I hope we will look back at present day with the same appreciation for all the triumphs and challenges it takes to make a great city.


Boom Town

“No period in Madison’s history produced so much change so quickly.” “A heady, almost uncontrollable prosperity reigned. The number and scope of new developments were dizzying.” “If Madison did not possess the full style and dignity of a city, people thought it was rapidly moving in that direction.”

Whether you’re a resident or occasional visitor to Madison, these quotes might make you think about the last few years in Madison. Our downtown Capitol Square is full of exciting new restaurants and shops. Johnson Street just west of State Street features new high-rise apartments and hotels squeezed into city blocks where little one and two story residences and businesses once stood. Similarly, East Washington is also booming with high-rise apartments and restaurants, displacing abandoned buildings and car lots. Breese Stephens Field is alive again, and University Avenue is full of beautifully designed new buildings supporting all that’s happening at UW-Madison.

Oddly enough, though, these quotes come from the introduction to chapter two of David Mollenhoff’s book Madison: A History of the Formative Years. The chapter is titled “The Village Decade: 1846 to 1856”.  I thoroughly enjoy reading about the village decade because so much happened and it was around the same period when our home was built. But the chapter also fascinates me because I see so many parallels between those ten years and current events, not just in Madison, but in many growing U.S. cities.


Leonard J. Farwell credit: Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID-2650

Leonard J. Farwell
credit: Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID-2650

Mr. Mollenhoff begins the chapter describing the Farwell Boom when Leonard James Farwell came to Madison from Milwaukee in 1847 and was a champion for the growth of the area. Like others, he realized the potential of Madison’s location at the center of a large fertile area with no competing towns for miles around as well as its beautiful setting and its designation as the territorial capital. A year later, in 1848, Madison’s future became even brighter with three significant events: Wisconsin became a state, Madison was made its permanent capital, and Madison was made the home to the University of Wisconsin.

Farwell’s vision and leadership touched our city and state in many ways. In 1852, he became Wisconsin’s youngest governor at the age of thirty-three for a two-year term, and his accomplishments during this time were amazing. Among them, he abolished the death penalty, created the state banking system, built Mendota Mental Health Institute, and created the State Commission of Immigration to actively encourage migrating Europeans to settle in Wisconsin, an idea subsequently copied by other states.

View of downtown and the Capitol from Washington Avenue, 1865

View of downtown and the Capitol from Washington Avenue, 1865

Even as governor, Farwell didn’t abandon his dedication to Madison. During the 1852 and 1853 construction seasons, Farwell set a crew to grade East Washington Avenue from Blount Street to the Yahara River (a little over one mile). On top of the grading, the crew built a double plank road, Madison’s first form of paving, and to finish off this grand project, 6,000 maple and cottonwood trees were planted along the sides of the avenue. While governor, he also led investment groups that put up the Capital House, one of the fanciest hotels in the state, and the prestigious commercial building called Bruen’s Block, which included the Wisconsin State Journal among its tenants. At the corner of East Washington and Pinckney Street, Bruen’s Block stood where now is the well-known glass building housing US Bank as well as the popular restaurants L’Etoile and Graze.

If Farwell’s many accomplishments weren’t enough, the village decade also brought another momentous change: the arrival of the first railroad in 1854. As Mollenhoff states, “to have a railroad pass through town was regarded as a prerequisite for urban success.” Canals were limited and roads were unreliable, but a railroad brought goods and people, regardless of weather, catapulting any community into major growth and progress.

To celebrate this historic occasion, Madison does what it does best – it threw a party. Everyone in town was invited and 2,000 people flocked to the depot on May 24, 1854 to see a steam engine – a marvel of modern technology – cross Lake Monona into the village. Following the ceremony to welcome the train, the crowd returned to Main Street where they celebrated with barbequed steers, chickens, and ducks. It was undoubtedly one of the most unforgettable days in Madison’s history.

Following the arrival of the first train, life in Madison changed almost immediately. Just days after the railroad opened, up to thirty-car trains carried Madison wheat to Milwaukee. Travel through town doubled that summer and housing starts dramatically increased. The population exploded from 600 people in 1846 to 9,000 just ten years later – an increase of 1500%! The population growth pushed development into Mansion Hill, Fourth Lake Ridge (our current Tenney-Lapham neighborhood), Third Lake Ridge (today’s Williamson Street area), around the railroad depot (now the Bassett neighborhood), and along State Street.

Undoubtedly, the Great Farwell Boom and the village decade of 1846-56 laid the foundation for what Madison has become today, its impact still notable in many ways throughout the city. It makes me appreciate what I see around me when driving and walking through our downtown area.

As many of us know, though, growth comes with its share of problems and sometimes quirks unique to a city. In my next blog, I’ll share some of these as well as Madison’s notable rise to officially becoming a city.

Pinckney Street, ca. 1859.

Pinckney Street, ca. 1859. Bruen’s Block is the large building on the right.

New Year’s Resolutions Solved

Every year we hear about how many people make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and get fit. Just as I’m writing these opening sentences, two separate commercials have appeared on TV about weight loss programs. Yet, every year we hear about how many people don’t keep their resolutions. Despite the odds against us, human nature prevails and we keep up the tradition of resolutions, many with good intentions such as losing weight and exercising more. And even if a small fraction of people stick with a resolution, it’s certainly not a bad thing that a few more people have found their way to a healthier lifestyle.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun and a source of encouragement to provide some ways residents and visitors in Madison can stay committed to a New Year’s resolution to get healthy and exercise more. My suggestions focus mostly on these darker and colder days of winter when the resolve to stay fit can sometimes be a challenge.

south_cherokee_ski_5Cross country skiing. Madison has a number of groomed trails at golf courses like Odana Hills and Yahara Hills. One of my personal favorites is Glenway Golf Course. This nine-hole course is tucked away in a near-westside neighborhood between a cemetery and the Southwest Bike Path. As you ski toward the back of the course, it’s very secluded with many beautiful old trees. Since it’s not groomed, be sure to be respectful of the golf course and only ski when conditions permit. Beyond the golf courses, I’d also recommend Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, another beautiful and secluded area in the midst of our city. If you need skis, rentals are available at Odana Hills or at our local sporting goods store, Fontana Sports.

Snowshoeing on the lakes. While this winter has been abnormal where ice hasn’t formed, Madison lakes are often a great option for snowshoeing. Similar to going out on a lake in the summer, the views of the city are stunning, and a day or evening snowshoeing in the winter is a very peaceful experience as well. Guests at The Livingston Inn can enjoy a fun snowshoeing excursion from our lake access across to the UW campus and the union. If you need snowshoes during a visit, Fontana Sports is again a great option.

yogaJoin a health club. Similar to those weight loss commercials, health clubs heavily solicit new members this time of year. So why not take advantage of some of the special offers and make it the year join a health club? Madison has so many options from the nationwide chains to large and small local clubs. Close to The Livingston Inn are two great local options: Capital Fitness and Pinnacle Health and Fitness. If you’re a guest here and have joined a health club at home, remember The Livingston Inn offers free health club access to Pinnacle Health so you can maintain your workout schedule during your visit.

Schedule yourself on a walking tour or two. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with winter sports, like skiing and snowshoeing, running and walking are good alternatives. Walking is a great exercise, and if you’d like it to be more interesting, add in something like an architectural walking tour. While the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation has guided tours in warmer weather, the City of Madison has a very nice list of tours you can do on your own like the Old Market Place, Tenney-Lapham, and Mansion Hill tours in our neighborhood.

Exercise your brain. A New Year’s resolution to get healthy should include body AND mind. No matter what your age, the benefits of exercising your brain, or intellect, go far for a long and healthy life. With that in mind, I would recommend regular trips to the Madison Public Library. Our downtown library was re-modeled just a few years ago, and it is such a fun place to visit. Just from its exterior, the building draws you in and makes it very inviting to spend an afternoon reading books and periodicals, perhaps bringing something home until your next library visit. If you’re staying at our B&B and want to incorporate a little physical exercise, the downtown library is an enjoyable 20-minute walk from our inn.Madison Public Library Central Branch

Eat and drink well, locally. Madison features several companies dedicated to nutritious food as part of a commitment to health and well-being. One of my favorites is nut butter offered by the local company, Yumbutter. Yumbutter’s nut butters are an organic superfood made from nuts and seeds offering an ideal source for proteins and antioxidants. Available in peanut, almond, and sunflower, they all taste great, too. If you’re looking for something healthy to drink, many Madison residents have discovered the benefits of kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink made with living cultures of bacteria and yeast. While that may not sound appealing at first, kombucha has a very nice flavor similar to iced teas. The drink’s history stretches back to East Asian cultures where it’s believed to cure many diseases and afflictions. Today, fans of kombucha drink it to improve digestion and provide antioxidants to the body. While science has yet to support these claims, I’ll take a bottle of kombucha over a soda or sugar-intense energy drink any day. Here in Madison, NessAlla has been a local producer of kombucha for years and knows what it’s doing to make an excellent, quality product. You can find it in most stores and several restaurants throughout Madison.nessalla

If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution of some type related to your health, I want to be the first to say you can do it. Don’t let any naysayers tell you resolutions are meant to be broken. But if you need a little support, hopefully the list above will inspire you to discover fun, creative, and sustaining ways to make 2016 a great year for your health!

Leitch House History Highlights

As several established Madisonians know, The Livingston Inn is identified more formally as the William T. Leitch House.  This is the name given to the house when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.  William T. Leitch was the original owner of the house, overseeing its construction in the 1850s.  The Livingston Inn was the name given to the house when it became a B&B in the mid-1990s.  In its history, our home was also called the Harman House, named after the long tenure of Gordon and Dolly Harman at 752 East Gorham from the mid-1950s to 1990s.  To this day, some Madisonians still refer to the house as the Harman House.

Since we bought the house in 2011, we have been so fortunate to become close acquaintances with Gail and Jacqui Harman, daughters who grew up in the house while their parents owned it.  It’s a treasure to us each time they stop by to visit, and they have been so generous sharing memories and little saved mementos from their years living here.  We sometimes go around the house with them, and they tell us cherished details about how the house was arranged many years ago, so different now that its rooms are re-designed for a B&B.

Recently, we were pleased to welcome Jacqui Harman back to the house along with Gail’s daughters and their children.  Gail was not here for that visit, but following it, she sent along some items she had held onto as a memory of this house, and we’d like to share a couple of them with you.

First, Gail sent a newspaper clipping from the Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday, September 16, 1979.  The article featured owners of three homes on the National Register of Historic Places, one set of owners being Gordon and Dolly Harman.  The article emphasized the trade-off of not having every modern-day convenience in order to live in a historic home.  Items like amount of space were noted as an advantage while challenges focused on heating and cooling.

At the time, the Harmans were dedicated to living in the house as true to the history as possible.  Dolly explained, “Our kitchen sink has legs.  We have no Formica or any of the conveniences that everyone takes for granted.  This includes an automatic dishwasher, though we do have a freezer in the basement so I don’t have to shop for food every day.”

The Wisconsin State Journal article also featured several photos that we thoroughly enjoyed.  Anyone who has used our west stairwell will recognize a photograph of a chandelier still hanging there as you proceed up the stairs.Light by West Staircase

Guests who have stayed in the General Pickering room might recognize this photograph from the bathroom.  Someday we’d love to bring back a pull chain toilet to this bathroom, and we were so happy to see that’s what the Harmans had in place.General Pickering Bathroom

There was also a photo of Dolly Harman at what must be the dining room window as those windows are the only floor-to-ceiling ones in the house.  The Harmans loved the shutters on their windows, and we are sad to say they were gone when we arrived.  The radiator, though, remains in the same spot, maybe considered more decorative over the years but still serving its purpose.Dolly Harman

Finally, there is a photo of the exterior of the house looking through the wrought-iron fence that still is a prominent feature of this house.  Back then, the trim was painted white, which gave much more emphasis to the “gingerbread” look of the house.  Gone are the vines, which nowadays masons and landscape architects advise are not healthy for the long-term health of the sandstone structure.Exterior Photo 1979

Planning Profile 31In addition to the article on the William T. Leitch House, Gail sent along a City of Madison 1973 edition of the Planning Profile.  The profile has many interesting facts about the city in 1972.  Among them, it notes the area of the city is 50.8 square miles.  Today it’s considered around 77 square miles.  Gail sent us the Planning Profile because it also notes 1972 was the year that our house was designated on the National Register of Historic Places.  You’ll also see a photo and reference to the “House of Harman” on this page.Plannig Profile 31 - Harman House

There were several other little treasures in Gail’s packages, but I’ll end with a striking photo inside the front cover of a 1992 Wisconsin Historical Calendar.  While 1992 is recent history, the photo shows a view in 1898 from one end of UW-Madison looking toward the State Capitol.   The iconic Red Gym is on the left and the State Historical Society building is just under construction.  But what is stunning about the photo is the grandeur and size of the State Capitol building looming on the horizon.  To this day, guests are so impressed with our Capitol building, but back in 1898, this must have been an architectural marvel to city dwellers and visitors alike.Capitol View 1898

We hope you enjoyed these history highlights of The Livingston Inn, also known as the William T. Leitch House, also known as the Harman House, provided by one of its former residents.  We regularly research and receive information about the history of the house and hope to share more stories with our readers and guests in the near future.