Where In Dane County: Mansion Hill Neighborhood is a Special Part of Madison History

by Patricia Cazares, age 13

One hundred fifty years ago master architects Samuel Donnel and August Kotzbock built a number of beautiful buildings right here in Madison. Five of these buildings still stand today in a downtown district called Mansion Hill.

Recently, a group of Simpson Street Free Press reporters went on a tour to learn more about Mansion Hill. Ann Waidelich, a very knowledgeable member of the Wisconsin Historical Society, was our tour guide.

These Mansion Hill houses were built in the nineteenth century, and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. The Mansion Hill neighborhood has the largest concentration of historic buildings constructed out of sandstone.

On the tour we saw and learned about each building on Mansion Hill. One of the buildings I especially enjoyed learning about was the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, located at 300 E. Gorham Street. It was built in the German Romanesque Revival Style. The façade is made out of sandstone while the back and sidewalls are cream-colored bricks.

In addition to being the nation’s fourth oldest surviving synagogue, the Gates of Heaven Synagogue was Madison’s first. It was built for the congregation and served this purpose for 16 years. Over the years the synagogue has been used as a kindergarten, the Mission Tearoom, a dentist office, the Gill Funeral Home, a Unitarian Meeting House, the English Lutheran Church, the Church of Christ, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

At one point, this historic building was under threat of being torn down. Luckily, some citizens rescued it by moving it from 214 W. Washington Avenue to James Madison Park. This happened in 1971. Now, the Gates of Heaven is managed by the Madison Parks Department and is available for community use.

We spent about two hours walking around the neighborhood and looking at these beautiful, old houses and buildings. Thanks to our knowledgeable tour guide, I really began to notice how different these buildings are when compared to other buildings you see in Madison.

I started to see what was different about them. For instance, many of these houses have very unusual windows. It’s almost like they’re fake windows; they are actually just shutters made to look like windows. The designers used this technique to make the façades appear symmetrical. They wanted each to be unique, but also fit within certain architectural styles.

In its day, the Mansion Hill neighborhood had some of Madison’s most beautiful homes. It still does today. On our tour we saw some fascinating buildings. The main reason they are fascinating is because of their unusual architecture. There is a lot to notice. If you take the time to walk around Mansion Hill, you will begin to notice these fascinating details, and some interesting history, for yourself.