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55 Years After First Outline, a City Still Awaits the Re-Wright : The controversial designer's civic center, now a convention center, may remain unbuilt because of local wrangling.


MADISON, Wis. — The wrangling began in 1938, the year a group of local burghers raised $1,000 to hire the famed, flamboyant architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The informal delegation was appalled by the city's uninspired plans for a civic center to be built on the shores of Lake Monona, two blocks from the Wisconsin state Capitol.

Please, they begged Wright, give us an alternative to show the town.

Intrigued, the architect accepted the commission. He came up with an ingenious, semicircular rooftop garden extending from a cliff at the end of the road. City offices, a jail, courtrooms and even a railroad station hugged the bluff below, resting on lake-bed pilings and offering vast watery vistas through great glass walls. Dome-shaped skylights in the garden echoed the neoclassic Capitol and helped to illuminate the building underneath.

The other, dull proposal was duly killed. But Wright's design set off decades of court battles, referendums, City Council quarrels and state legislative spats. Fifty-five years after Wright's first proposal and 34 years after his death, plans to build the center are moving forward, but the fight continues--a fitting legacy, perhaps, for an architect who thrived on passion and controversy, and a city that does the same. Madison officials say they expect construction to begin next summer; opponents vow it won't.

Wright revised the project several times, although he never got another penny for his work. He was characteristically undiplomatic in his campaign to move the center from concept to concrete. In a speech to the local Lions Club, he called Madison "a highbrowed community of provincials" who were "lacking in civic spirit" for failing to perceive its brilliance.

Wright "used to say ruefully that they will never build this in my lifetime," recalled Anthony Puttnam, who joined Wright as an apprentice in 1953. But, the master architect would add, " 'someday they will,' " Puttnam said.

One year ago, a third city vote on the subject resulted in yet another approval of bonds to erect what is now grandly titled "Monona Terrace: A Public Place By Frank Lloyd Wright." In the latest incarnation, the project is to be a convention center. The state and Dane County, which includes Madison, have also pledged contributions to the $63.5-million project.

Next month, the city's Common Council is expected to hire a construction manager, which would move the project closer to groundbreaking than ever in its tumultuous history.

But obstacles remain. To continue the forward momentum, the private sector must raise another $1 million. And the center must receive environmental permits from the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is clear that more legal and political maneuvering lie ahead.

In the beginning, opposition to the project focused on Wright himself, who lived and worked nearby at a rural estate he named "Taliesin," after a Welsh poet. A married man, he lived openly with another woman, a client's wife, fueling a national scandal. He cultivated a dramatic appearance, draping a cape majestically over his shoulders. He owed money to nearly everyone in town.

This is not to say that Madison scorned Wright's work. On the contrary, many private citizens hired him to design their residences.

But Monona Terrace was to be publicly funded. And Madison "has always been fussy," said Mary Jane Hamilton, a local Wright scholar who has extensively researched the history of the Monona Terrace debate. Hub of the state government, home to the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus, the city of 200,000 has long had a reputation for exhaustive, acrimonious debate over issues foreign and domestic.

During the 1950s, critics of Monona Terrace emphasized Wright's "un-American" activities--some favorable impressions of the "sincere Russian experiment" that he shared with newspaper interviewers.

In the '90s, the great national questions of the day are likewise folded into the debate. This time around, the discussion has centered on the economy, the environment and a philosophical matter: the role of the artist in art.

Center advocates say the building could lure badly needed tourist dollars. Critics note that it is expected to operate at a deficit and say Madison should not be spending so much in recessionary times. "This is a case of 'glory-osis,' " said Ann E. Fleischli, an attorney who has been a leader in the organization fighting the most recent revival of the plan.

The local chapter of the Sierra Club has entered the fray, charging that building on the lake bottom, even a small part of it, should not be allowed. An old landfill is on the center site and some environmentalists charge that driving pilings there will speed leaching of contaminants into the rest of the 3,300-acre lake.

The passage of so much time has brought another question to the fore: Is this building even a Wright anymore, or is it Memorex?

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