In the Beginning

The Ho-Chunk-gra and Four Lakes

The Ho-Chunk-gra (People of the Parent Speech, People of the Sacred Language, or People of the Big Voice) have been in Dejopera (de-jop-a-ra or The Four) for many millennia. The Ho-Chunk-gra claim thirteen Millennium and the last ice age of residency in what is now called Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk-gra are descendants of the mound builders and they have the ancient oral history of the area's pre-Colonial territories and states. The Ho-Chunk-gra traditionally controlled the waterways and lakes along the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, along with all the tributaries before the colonial settlers arrived in the old North-West territory of North America. “Čihoboxįį́ḱ era” (chee-ha-bo-kee-kay-ta-la)” which translates to mean “where the Tipis are,” is the Ho-Chunk-gra name for what we today refer to as Lake Monona. Monona is a Meskwaki word meaning “fairy,” but the Meskwaki did not name it. It appears in history that a City surveyor suggested both the names for Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. How are these Ho-Chunk-gra names and places to be remembered when most Madisonians only know John Nolen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and James Duane Doty?


Madison: A Model City

In 1908 John Olin and a progressive group of business leaders persuaded the Common Council to hire John Nolen, the nation's leading urban planner, to do a comprehensive plan for Madison. The centerpiece of Nolen's plan, first revealed at a public meeting in 1909, was a Grand Esplanade, a 40-acre water-fronting park running from Spaight Street to the railroad crossing in Brittingham Bay.

The key element of the plan was a two-block long platform built over four railroad tracks (where Monona Terrace is located today) with stairs cascading down to a spacious formal waterfront park. Nolen’s plan was published in book form in 1911. However, Madison leaders did not begin to implement the Nolen plan for a grand lake-fronting park until the 1930s.


Monona Basin Plan

The defeat of the Frank Lloyd Wright's “auditorium” in the 1962 referendum led to a second plan that was executed by Taliesin Associated Architects, Wright's on-going architectural firm, then led by William Wesley Peters. The key feature of this plan for the area between today's Monona Terrace and Machinery row was an expanded lakefront park, a community center, and a marina. The Common Council approved a slightly modified master plan, but it never advanced because the cost of the auditorium came in over budget and newly-elected Mayor Dyke opposed it.


Monona Terrace

Monona Terrace and superlatives are good friends. It was the largest, most expensive, most controversial, most frequently redesigned building, and required more time (21 years) than any other building that Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed, and it was the only one where he was elected to be its architect.

Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center opened its doors in 1997. Today, nearly 390,000 people say “see you at Monona Terrace” each year. From formal events like conventions and conferences to public events like Dane Dances, Monona Terrace has a wide geographic draw, attracting local, regional, state and international events each year.

Photo by Brent Nicastro


Kenton Peters Plan

Madison Architect and Developer, Kenton Peters proposed a redevelopment of Law Park that included a terraced “esplanade” or lake park built over John Nolen Drive and railroad tracks to the lakeshore. The new landscaped park would include everything from a restaurant to a glass-enclosed winter garden. “A city park in the heart of Downtown available to everybody, accessible to everybody.”


Monona Terrace Expansion

Madison Design Professionals researched the layout of Monona Terrace and devised a means of connecting from within the existing structure to an expansion area to the east. This would allow a doubling of meeting and ballroom spaces, together with supporting functions. To be located over John Nolen Drive and the existing railroad tracks, the adjacent expansion would be behind the face of Monona Terrace, thereby assuring primacy of the existing structure. In this position, it could have both a habitable roof deck and connection to an adjacent park which could be built between the Downtown escarpment and the lake. A study by GRAEF engineers confirmed the feasibility.


Madison Design Professionals Workshop

The Madison Design Professionals Workgroup is a volunteer team of talented design and planning professionals that formed in 2008 to prepare design visions for the Downtown Master Plan Update. Since 2012, the group has donated their time and expertise to develop a vison for expanding Law Park. In May 2017, they unveiled their transformative Nolen Waterfront Vision (three concepts) at the Madison Community Foundation 75th Anniversary Dinner at Monona Terrace.

Members of the Madison Design Professionals worked closely with recent UW-Madison Civil and Environmental Engineering graduates who had produced two creative Law Park Revitalization concepts as part of their Senior Capstone projects in the Spring semester, 2017. Additional landscape architecture and engineering professionals with significant experience on urban waterfront projects similar to the Nolen Waterfront, volunteered their services pro-bono to flesh out three conceptual planning teams.

Additional Resources


University of Wisconsin-Madison Capstone Design Projects

Law Park and the John Nolen Drive Causeway revitalization have been a design challenge for several University of Wisconsin-Madison capstone student teams from the department of civil & environmental engineering, and the planning & landscape achitecture department over the past seven years. The ideas have gained traction with key stakeholders at the city, county, and state level.

“I cannot over-emphasize the help we received from UW-Madison's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,” said Dave Mollenhoff, a local historian, book author and member of the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup. “I wish I had the time to tell you how they drilled down to the details of this project to produce reports that would cost thousands of dollars from consultants. This, friends, is a brilliant example of what we call the Wisconsin Idea.”

Additional Resources


Destination District & Taskforce

The Destination District is a 500-acre gateway area between the beltline and downtown, encompassing 200 acres of park and open space, the Alliant Energy Center grounds, and the corridors to South Park Street, and surrounding neighborhoods. The vision is to transform the area into a vibrant convening district and Southside lakefront park by: activating the lakefront and creating a destination park that incorporates the 200-acres of park and open space; creating a safe pedestrian-oriented district that ties public and private development into a unified district; seamlessly connecting Southside neighborhoods to the lake district and downtown; and significantly increasing tax base and community revenue while increasing activities for residents and visitors.

The Destination District Task Force, a group of dedicated public and private civic leaders, has come together to help ensure the advancement and coordinated implementation of the Destination District Vision and its many components. As part their efforts, they also work to ensure the recommendations from the multi-jurisdictional 2018 Destination District Vision & Strategy are considered and incorporated into ongoing City and County planning and implementation efforts.


John Nolen Drive Reconstruction

The John Nolen Drive reconstruction project will encompass a number of structural design improvements along the causeway between North Shore Drive and Olin Avenue. The project will include:

  • Reconstruction of six bridges along the causeway
  • Lane configuration and cross section changes
  • Expansion of the existing path to separate bike path and pedestrian facilities
  • Shoreline reconstruction along Lake Monona
  • Pedestrian and bike underpass between North Shore Drive and Broom Street
  • Reconstruction of storm sewer
  • Traffic signals and street lighting
  • Others to be determined through public involvement process

This project, scheduled for construction in 2026, will be planned and designed in coordination with the ongoing Lake Monona Waterfront redevelopment.