Sure, parks are a perk of living in Madison. And they’ve been so since the late 1890s! Thanks to John M. Olin, the visionary leader of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, and a handful of philanthropic residents, we have these three standouts today.
702 S. Randall Ave.
Namesake: William F. Vilas (1840–1908) was the son of Madison’s fourth mayor. A Madison lawyer, he chaired the Democratic National Convention that nominated Grover Cleveland for president in 1884. He became a close friend of Cleveland, who named him postmaster general and secretary of the interior. Vilas became a U.S. Senator in 1890 but returned to Madison six years later and turned his attention to ventures in timber, bank securities and railroads.
Then: When talk of developing land on Lake Wingra into a public park started, Olin turned to Vilas, who purchased the land in 1904 and offered it to the MPPDA with a list of conditions, including that a pleasure drive be built through the woods and Wingra Creek be dredged and deepened. He also “suggested” naming the park Henry Vilas Park in memory of his late son. In 1914, the association began hosting free band concerts (paid for by proceeds from a refreshment tent) on summer Saturdays. Madisonians relaxed on the lawns, strolled, listened to music and played baseball—and the tradition of a Saturday in the park began.
Now: There’s plenty to do at this beloved forty-two-acre park: swim, fish, ice skate, play sports or visit the Old Woman in a Shoe playground. Henry Vilas Zoo sits next door and a lakeside trail connects the park with the UW Arboretum and the forested Park and Pleasure Drive.
401 Brittingham Pl.
Namesake: Thomas E. Brittingham (1860–1924) opened a lumberyard in McFarland at the age of twenty-five. In Madison, he served as curator for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, chair of the State Park Board and a member of the University’s Board of Regents. When he died, he was considered Madison’s richest man, with a fortune estimated between $10 and $15 million.
Then: Buzz about building a park around Monona Bay grew in 1903 when the MPPDA was gifted three blocks of land. Two years later, Brittingham donated money for improving the highly visible area—then a stretch of neglected shoreline full of weeds and garbage. Work got under way in 1906 and involved dredging sand from Lake Monona to fill in marshland and, later, planting thousands of trees and shrubs. The park was popular from its opening in 1910. An estimated fifty thousand people visited the park in its first season, and many rented from the three hundred bathing suits the park provided for swimming.
Now: A natural reprieve from the bustle of downtown streets, this pocket park features waterfront benches and picnic tables, play equipment and sports courts. A boathouse sits on the corner of the twenty-three-acre park, which also includes a paved walkway that winds along the rocky shoreline of Monona Bay and links to the Isthmus Bike Path.
1414 E. Johnson St.
Namesake: Daniel K. Tenney (1834–1915) started out a lawyer and common council member at a young age in Madison, but made his career in Chicago. However, he always kept up to date on Madison’s goings-on, eventually moving back in 1897 and immersing himself again in the city’s politics and civic affairs.
Then: Property owners near Lake Mendota offered up land for the city to purchase, but in 1899, Tenney proposed to buy it for $1,500—and donate an additional $2,500—under the condition that the MPPDA hold the land in trust for the city, improve and maintain it, and raise an additional $2,500 for park development. Development started in 1900, with Madison’s first in-city park marking a shift toward democratization of green spaces. What’s more, Tenney Park was located near the working-class “factory district” of the city.
Now: One of Madison’s most popular green spaces, the twenty-three-acre park offers something for nearly everyone: places to picnic, playgrounds, a beach for swimming in Lake Mendota, fishing spots, ice skating in the winter, winding paths for walking or biking, and fields and courts for playing sports. And plenty of benches allow visitors to sit and take in the on-land and on-lake action around them.
Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.