A visit to Water Tower Place.
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Recently we’ve been forced into a lot of conversation about the historic value of office buildings. The planned development of a large apartment complex on Sherman Avenue hit a roadblock in January when historic preservationists and some neighbors tried to secure landmark status for a vacant office building currently occupying the site. Impassioned arguments for the historic value of this dull, blocky structure ranged from “something something credit unions” to “Harry Truman spoke there once,” and they all sounded like feeble obstruction in a city that needs to add more housing and fast. The Madison Common Council rejected those arguments earlier this month.
Discussions of development, housing, aesthetics, and history deserve more thoughtful treatment than they tend to get in Madison. But where do we draw the line? Where does the humdrum world of commerce and work start to bleed over into architecture worth cherishing?
The line is Water Tower Place, an office building in Monona.
This is a good neutral reference point for these debates, because it’s not in the city of Madison proper and as far as I’m aware no one has proposed tearing it down lately. And they better not! I am mildly obsessed with the building at 5900 Monona Drive, a trapezoid that leans back against a hillside as if trying to make its four stories of office space into an elaborate glass-and-concrete “just gonna sneak past ya” joke.
Helmut Ajango, who designed Water Tower Place, was most certainly an architect of note. Ajango emigrated to the United States from his native Estonia as a child in the 1940s, and in the 1960s set up shop in Fort Atkinson. His influences ranged from the Frank Lloyd Wright-style Prairie School to the more whimsical corners of modernist architecture. Which is how he ended up with a body of work that includes the delightfully rounded swoops of the Gobbler Supper Club and Motel in Johnson Creek (it used to have a rotating bar and waterbeds), the understated Prairie flair of his own Fort Atkinson home, and a triangular church in Fitchburg that seems to simultaneously hunker down to the ground and reach for the heavens. Oh, and a head-spinning Cambridge lake house that just might be the “Wisconsin ‘cabin’ that’s not really a cabin” to end them all. Ajango made his mark across southern Wisconsin for decades, before he died in 2013.
Ajango certainly made some bold choices in designing Water Tower Place—first, butting the building right up against the lovely Woodland Park, with a water tower looming right over it. An October 1984 Wisconsin State Journal article quotes a construction manager on this feat: “The building is buried in the hill on a site that was previously believed to be unbuildable.” Ajango made the main entrance into a sort of beak, and broke up the lobby with zig-zag lines of planters and a sunken waiting area. Look at the exterior for a while and tell me you’re not tempted to try running up that thing.
The steep facade creates some oddly shaped internal pockets of space, and, at the right times of day, helps the lobby atrium fill up with appealing shafts of light. The interior belies the slicing severity of the exterior. The atrium—which is smaller than you might expect from the overall scale of the building—greets visitors with discs of blue, red, and orange suspended from the ceiling, a textured blue plastic wall, and a dramatic hanging of translucent fabric that spans the height of an elevator shaft.
The back of the elevator is glass, so riders ascend and descend through gracefully shifting ribbons of color. It’s honestly thrilling. I dragged my friend Nick Pjevach over there recently (thank you, Nick), and it was the first time since toddlerhood that I gleefully insisted on riding an elevator all the way up and all the way down.
I’m not sure whether all these artistic elements are part of Ajango’s original design or not—the building’s management and owner didn’t respond to my requests for comment and I’ve had little luck digging up much historical detail—but it’s more than worth stopping by to take in the space.
Beyond the atrium and elevator, poking around the building can feel a little awkward. The mental-health non-profit Tellurian, which owns the building, also provides some outpatient services there, so if you do end up visiting please be mindful of folks’ privacy. Also, at some points the stairwells open up not into common hallways but directly into offices, and I felt a bit bad about accidentally stumbling right into the middle of someone’s workday. We also ran across an incredibly retro snack machine. Approach from the back or side, and you really get a sense of Water Tower Place’s athletic concrete dance, especially the narrow passage that leads to one of its side doors. In an online listing, the property management company, Greywolf Partners, boasts of a “a fitness center and racquetball court,” though unfortunately I wasn’t able to find those areas.
If I were in the market for office space, I’d have to give it some serious thought. Envision the workday, broken up with lunch at a nearby treasure like Fraboni’s or La Rosita, a walk on the adjacent park’s beautiful trails, and/or an invigorating racquetball match. One can dream. For now, the occasional stroll through Ajango’s angular vision will have to suffice.