Imagine my surprise when fellow high-school classmate and garage band musician Aaron Shekey was mentioned in John McPhee’s latest essay for The New Yorker. McPhee quoted Shekey’s own essay from a few years ago called “It’s What You Leave Out”, about the curious case of the Madison skyline. “One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown,” Shekey wrote, “is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet.”
This mandate, now 100 years old, is still in place, leaving us with a skyline a Madisonian who was around at the time of the edict’s passing would still recognize.
It’s a view I’ve grown used to, even bored of, having lived there until I left for college. But when I compare it to other lakeside skylines I’ve come to know, like Chicago’s, where even with the Sears Tower there is no clear focal point or guiding architectural principle except how high the buildings can reach and how many condos they can cram into the air space, I see the value of the Madison experiment—the “century’s worth of restraint” as Shekey called it. You could almost call it a civic humility, thought that’s not quite right. Not when the capitol building, the literal civic center, is the legally mandated center of attention.
A bird’s-eye view tells the same story: the Capitol sits in the middle of the downtown square, in the middle of the isthmus that splits the lakes Monona and Mendota. You could loop around the Capitol all day on the one-way streets that revolve around it. And that’s OK, because it’s a beauty. Shekey again: “If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.”
I suppose it makes sense the center of government should be the nucleus of the city, the standard by which everything else is judged and modeled. But one person’s civic restraint is another’s stunted growth. Chicago is a storied architectural wonder (I’d highly recommend taking an architectural boat tour if you can), but that wouldn’t have been so if after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 the city planners had imposed a vertical quota on the Loop.
When I tell people I’m from Madison, they often ask what it’s like and how I liked it. If they’re familiar with the area I tell them I’m actually, like Shekey, from the western suburb of Middleton, though I was born and raised in Madison through elementary school. But if they’re unfamiliar, I say it’s a typical college town: liberal (in Madison’s case very much so), lots of bars and bikes, and has lots to see around it if you know where to look.
I also like to call it a “little big city.” Like any big city it has a bustling downtown with distinct neighborhoods and adjacent suburbs, but it’s no Chicago or even Milwaukee. Driving on University Avenue through the Isthmus you can get from the westside of town to the east in 15 minutes if the stoplights and traffic are friendly. Besides the capitol building itself, the biggest things about Madison are the lakes it’s squeezed between—and the world renowned farmer’s market during the summer.
I’m sure Madison has “little big” friends in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg, Missouri’s Jefferson City, Washington’s Olympia, and other cities: state capitals that aren’t their state’s biggest city. They don’t have the skyscrapers of Philadelphia, Kansas City, or Seattle, but they have beautiful capitol buildings visitors like me would love to see. This is even true in Washington D.C., where the U.S. Capitol, larger but almost identical to Madison’s pillared dome, sits atop a hill overlooking the National Mall and the much smaller yet more iconic White House.
It takes high regard for the built beauty of one’s own place to preserve the arrangement Madison has over a century of constant change. Perhaps one day Madison’s glass (or ice) ceiling will shatter and the capitol dome will shrink into a much taller skyline than it’s accustomed to. But until then it will remain a little big city with a little big horizon that ain’t bad to come home to.
(Photo by Steve Wetzel)