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Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

LOOKING FOR NAKOMA
Madison, Wisconsin

getaway-chicago logo Intrepid travelers (and hawkers of Rand MacNally maps and guidance systems), the unflappable Getaway Guys lost their way and cool in a snowstorm while looking for a place named Nakoma. A day after highly successful visits to the new Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA), the Overture Center for the Arts and the State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin, Neil and Alan were blind sided by a freak storm. Supposedly a planned community built from the ground up (with nature in mind), Nakoma was designed in 1901 by the well-known landscape architect Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931), who was a student of William LeBaron Jenny (Chicago’s Garfield Park) and the father of John O. Simonds (Chicago Botanic Garden).

The Getaway Guys went to Madison to check out the recently finished MMOCA and its adjacent neighbor, the Overture Center for the Arts, both designed by internationally known architect Cesar Pelli. Neil was very familiar MMOCA by its former name, the Madison Art Center and also keenly aware of the Overture Center for the Arts when it was nearing completion in early 2006. madison1Alan was unfamiliar with either institution, but remembered the Montgomery Wards Store at 227 State Street prior to its reincarnation as the Madison Arts Center. His father was a Wards Manager and he remembered being dragged there on vacations. For a change, both Guys knew more or less where they were going. Both Guys were familiar with the State Capitol Building (designed by George Brown Post and built between 1906-1917). Neither had set foot in it for years, but they were staying at the Best Western Inn on the Park just across the square from the impressive State Capitol, so why not take a look? Despite its affiliation with Best Western, the Inn on the Park has a very long and interesting architectural presence and history.

madison2Madison isn’t exactly a hop, skip and jump from downtown Chicago and getting there by car isn’t “half the fun.”    The drive can be somewhat tedious and devoid of scenery until a traveler busts out of Illinois’s congested and seemingly endless toll road construction. Somewhere around Waukesha on I-94 or near Rockton on I-90, however, the sailing becomes easier and the sights more appealing. So, why bother? Bother because the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is worth a one-day getaway and because a performance in the magnificent Overture Center is worthy of a weekend visit. Throw in a casual stroll through the Capitol Building, a visit to the University of Wisconsin’s Chazen Art Museum (www.chazen.wisc.edu, 800 University Ave.), and, weather permitting, a visit to the University’s Arboretum (www.uwarboretum.org, 1207 Seminole Hwy., which is near “mythical” Nakoma, and a getaway person has really experienced something.

In different incarnations and locations MMOCA (www.mmoca.org) has been around for more than 100 years, but really got a boost in 1968 when Rudolph and Louise Langer made a major gift of art to the Museum. In the 40 years since, the permanent collection has grown to its present size of about 5,000 works, many of which can be studied (by appointment) in the Museum’s new study facilities. Augmented by a number of more intimate spaces devoted to present and future technological innovations in the making and exhibiting of art, the main exhibition space (State Street Gallery) of this new and exciting facility is cavernous and well-equipped to stage large and challenging shows of diverse visual content. madison3For its size and location, MMOCA has always been more about facilitating intellectually sound and probing exhibitions of art on the cutting edge than it has been about a historical overview of art since the beginning of time. The new space (51,500 sq. ft. with a rooftop sculpture garden and a dynamite Museum Store) is worth the price of admission (free) and the staff continues to be friendly, helpful and down-to-earth despite the grand digs. Over the years exhibitions at the Madison Art Center/Madison Museum of Contemporary Art have featured  a galaxy of art luminaries: Louise Bourgeois, Sol Le Witt, Chuck Close, Karl Wirsum, Dan Ramirez and Aaron Siskind. The place is a Midwest must see!

Although the Getaway Guys made a weekend of their Madison adventure, they didn’t attend a performance in any of Overture’s (www.overturecenter.com, 201 State St.) production spaces. They talked at length about doing so, but as usual couldn’t agree about which production to see, let alone Alan’s willingness to cough up the dough. Instead they settled for a grand tour of the facility organized by the very helpful Public Relations Department. And, what a tour: the spaces got bigger and bigger! From the 330-seat Playhouse for experimental works, to the revamped, but largely preserved Capitol Theater (1928) for ensemble groups (1,000 seats), to the almost overwhelming Overture Hall, with a seating capacity of 2,257 for (you name it) symphonies, operas or Broadway productions, this Pelli complex was made possible by the very generous financial assistance (a cool, “that ain’t hay” $205 million) of W. Jerome Frautschi and his wife, Pleasant Rowland (creator of the American Girl empire). It’s a drop dead experience and just walking through the gleaming chrome and glass public spaces whets the appetite for more. Among other presentations (Phantom of the Opera, Fiddler on the Roof and Hair Spray) the Broadway show Rent was being presented when the Guys visited. Pelli’s design for the block-long Overture/MMOCA is clean and airy with the exception of two preserved facades from an earlier era of State Street commerce. madison4The ornate Capitol Theater façade is incorporated into the Pelli design as is the façade of the former Yost-Kessenich Department Store; both have landmark status and provide an interesting contrast.

The architecture of Wisconsin’s State Capitol Building isn’t unique. It looks a lot like the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. So the guys began to wonder what’s with domes?  Wisconsin’s Capitol Building dome is probably fashioned after Thomas Walter’s dome (1855-1866) in Washington, D.C.,which was inspired by the Pantheon in Paris (1758). The Parisian version is after Bramante’s (1444-1514) St Peter’s Cathedral, which, in turn, hails from Hadrian’s Pantheon (125 A.D.), also in Rome. Maybe Walter (U.S. capitol dome) and Post (Wisconsin capitol dome) just liked the look. The Wisconsin State Capitol Building sits on a raised piece of land and combined with its height (over 200 feet) is reputed to be the tallest structure in Madison. Its daylight appearance is interesting, but its nighttime, floodlit appearance is quite dramatic and photogenic. Inside, its rotunda and four wings (north, east, west and south) are marble clad in varying hues that reek of responsible authority. In an alcove on the second floor of the rotunda (sort of hidden) sits what is probably an almost forgotten piece of late nineteenth century, allegorical sculpture called The Genius of Wisconsin. Carved by 18 year old Helen Farnsworth Mears in 1892 for the Wisconsin pavilion at the World Columbian Exposition (1893), “Genius” luckily found a home in the Capitol Building (even if nobody knows it’s there). Helen Farnsworth Mears wasn’t as lucky. Born in Oshkosh and a student of Augustus St. Gaudens, Mears was found dead of starvation in her unheated New York studio in 1916.

madison5Madison is a bit confusing  to navigate. Scrunched between Lakes Mendota and Menona and seemingly defiant of the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785, the streets of the Capitol of Wisconsin are somewhat bewildering. But, it ain’t big, so you won’t be lost forever. Get a Rand MacNally map! With regard to food, the Guys had a surprisingly good and reasonably priced lunch just down the street from MMOCA/Overture at a place called Tutto Pasta Trattoria. Dinner was a different matter. Being the State Capitol and the epicenter of the vast University of Wisconsin system, Madison has a many and varied restaurant line-up worth researching. The Getaway Guys relied on suggestions from others and settled on a place called The Tornado Room just around the corner from their hotel. The food was plentiful and OK, the décor was “roadhouse” and the service reliable. The Guys were satisfied, but neither thought they were somewhere over the rainbow. Another suggested place was Fresco (www.foodfightinc.com, 608-663-7374). Sleek in its modern décor and above the new MMOCA, Fresco may have been a better choice and certainly a place the Guys would try on another trip to Madison.

As for Nakoma, the Guys never found it. They may have been close, but with fierce winds blowing snow every which way in hell, they abandoned hope and headed for Milwaukee’s Third Ward to do an update for their monthly column in the Evanston Roundtable. Another time they’ll go Looking For Nakoma.  February 2008

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