From warming hut to Prairie-style palace: Tenney Park Shelter

Story and photos by Diane Schwartz on Thursday 01/26/2012, Isthmus Newspaper 

  • The Tenney Park lagoon is frequently called Madison’s prettiest place to skate. Shaped like an uneven horseshoe, surrounded by trees and crossed by graceful arched bridges, it’s a setting reminiscent of a Currier and Ives painting. But until recently, the warming shelter was a dark and gloomy no-frills building built in 1958 and beginning to decay.

Now, the park has a shelter worthy of its status as a city of Madison Landmark and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Completed in December after four years of planning and a $1 million fundraising effort, the building looks right at home. Officially named the John T. Wall Family Pavilion in honor of its largest donor, it was designed by Plunkett Raysich Architects of Madison and incorporates such Prairie-style elements as natural limestone and broad overhanging eaves, all to match the park’s design roots.

“We used the old bathroom on Marston at Sherman, now used for storage, as the inspiration for the building,” says Mary Lang Sollinger, chair of the Tenney Park Shelter Group.

Inside, the shelter has rustic charm. Skaters can lace up in a well-lit room with tall ceilings edged with wood beams and sip cocoa in front of a limestone fireplace, built from recycled limestone from the old shelter. Above the fireplace hangs a huge sepia-tone photo depicting a tranquil scene of suspender-clad boys fishing in the lagoon circa 1935.

Remarkably, the scene (sans the suspenders) and the feel of the park have changed little, despite 30,000-plus cars going by each day.

In 1899, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association purchased the land with a $4,000 grant from Madison attorney Daniel K. Tenney. It was “intended to serve the families of working men and women who lived near the shops and factories on the isthmus,” according to the city’s parks website. The Association then hired Ossian Simonds, a nationally known landscape architect, who, along with Jens Jensen, created a distinct “prairie style” of landscaping, to design the park.

“The idea was to create naturalistic landscaping using native plants,” says Wisconsin Historical Society architectural historian Jim Draeger. “It’s very similar to what is done today.” In 1908, famed park planner John Nolen updated the design to better reflect the public’s growing demand for active forms of recreation. Some of the lagoon was drained to make room for a “broad meadow,” later home to baseball diamonds. Despite changes through the years, Simonds’ original design of lagoon and island remains.

The shelter’s inaugural season has not, so far, been a good one for skating. See or call 608-266-4711 to check ice conditions.

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