Sherman Avenue Historic District

Madison City, Dane County, WI

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House at 1250 Sherman Avenue in the Shernan Avaenue Historic District

The Sherman Avenue historic district is an area of gracious middle class houses dating mostly from the mid 1890s to the late 1920s. Created out of marshland along the shores of Lake Mendota, it was built during Madison's first era of suburban expansion. Unlike the popular west side suburbs, however, it was located near the downtown, only ten blocks east of the Capitol Square. The district includes the five‑block long section of Sherman Avenue that stretches from Giddings Park on the south to Tenney Park on the north. The district is composed essentially of the eighty-two residential buildings that face Brearly Street and Sherman Avenue, along with numerous garages and boathouses. The topography is flat, since most of the area is filled marshland. The scenic natural beauty is provided by the backdrop of Lake Mendota, a large, majestic inland lake with a lively and variable character. The houses on the west side of Sherman Avenue all have lake frontages. Almost all of the houses were built as single-family residences, only six of which were built to be rental units. Three structures were built as two-flats, one of which was owner occupied. The Sherman Apartments (480 North Baldwin Street) is a substantial brick seven unit structure that was also owner-occupied at first. The only nonresidential primary building ever constructed in the district was a two-story frame grocery store built in 1916 by Carl and Mary Dengel behind the$r house at 1113 Sherman. The Dengels ran the grocery store here until 1932 when they converted the building into a two-flat.

As one might expect, the houses on the lake side are larger and more Imposing than the houses across the street, although there are several large residences on the non-lake side, includinc the Tudor Revival Nelson house at 1015 Sherman, the vernacular Queen Anne Lenzer house at 1025, the Prairie Style Hokanson house at 1047, the French provincial Frautschi house at 1301 and the Lewis bungalow at 1315.

The elements unifying the two sides of the street are similar setbacks, building heights, rooflines, materials and art eclectic mixture of styles, from Queen Anne to the period revivals Most of the houses are fairly close to the sidewalk, except in the 1200 block along the lake, where the angle of the lakeshore created deeper lots. Most of r the houses on both sides of the street are also close together, the lots typically being 50 feet wide. Ninety five percent of the houses are 1% to 7h stories high (three houses are one story high and the Sherman Apartments is three stories high). Most rooflines are hipped or gabled. The houses are sided in wood (37%), stucco (22%), brick (16%), and stone (6%) or a combination of two of these materials (19%).

The architectural styles are similarly varied. There are 23 Queen Anne/shingle style houses, 25 prairie/Craftsman/bungalow houses, and 20 period revival style houses (colonial, Tudor, Cotswold Cottage, Mediterranean and French provincial). The other 14 houses are modern or vernacular.

Another unifying element is the high degree of integrity of the houses on- both sides of the street and the unobtrusive appearance of the non‑contributing buildings. Most of the houses in the district look very much like they did when they were built. In a few instances, alterations to the rooflines have occurred and some attached garages have been constructed, but other than that, most alterations that have been undertaken have been sensitive to the design integrity of the buildings. There are six non‑contributing buildings, all constructed after 1939. Two of these buildings are period revival in style and therefore blend in quite well with the other buildings. One is a 1940s vernacular cottage, two are 1950s suburban style houses, and one is a 1973 boathouse that is nearly invisible from the street.

The Louis Hirsig house, 1010 Sherman Avenue, is listed on the National Register and is a designated Madison landmark, 1975, Madison Landmarks Commission, Madison, WI 53710.


Sherman Avenue and its surrounding area were included in the original plat of Madison drawn up in 1836 for pioneer Wisconsin land agent and speculator, James Duane Doty. Following the shoreline of Lake Mendota, Sherman Avenue was one of only a handful of streets that did not conform to the plat's rectangular grid pattern. Surveyor Suydam's notes on the plat stated that some blocks in the Sherman Avenue area were "wet prairie". Suydam surveyed the area in October, when the land was probably fairly dry. In the spring, these areas were often "a shallow lake ... and in places covered by water at all times."

To the east, however, a hillock provided enough high ground for a saw and flour mill to be constructed. Channel!izing the meandering Yahara River, the outlet of which was just east of the boundary of the district, permitted the creation of a;four-foot drop ;to power the mill. The mill was erected in 1850 for Leonard J. Farwell, a land speculator who owned most of the land east of the Capitol Square and who was credited with Madison's 1850's building boom. At the same time, Messrs. Tibbets and Gordon erected a brewery on the same high ground, creating Madison's first industrial enclave. Further to the east, a beautiful maple-studded area beloved by the Indians (later the Village of Maple Bluff), became gentleman farms for Farwell and a few other, prominent pioneer families. Except for the springtime, when it was often a muddy quagmire, Sherman Avenue became the favored route to this eastern industrial and residential sector because of its scenic aspect along Lake Mendota's shore. Although the mill and the brewery both changed hands several times, the land along Sherman Avenue continued as part of the mill-brewery property. Sometime in the 19th century, someone planted a line of willow trees along the avenue and the street became a favorite Sunday promenade. No doubt a large part of the reason for this local pasttime was the fact that the brewery ran a saloon as an adjunct to its operations. Madison's many German residents cherished their Sunday outings to the beer gardens and saloons on Madison's outskirts. Only one house was built in the district before the 1890s development boom. In 1854, Robert and Sarah Hastie built a charming frame cottage at the corner of Brearly and Gorham Streets. Hastie was a house painter. Later, in 1872, the house became the home of the Joseph and Johannah Schubert family. Joseph Schubert was Madison's premier photographer in the late 19th century.

Sherman Avenue remained a scenic backwater until the early 1890's, when Madison experienced another period of rapid growth. In this era, Madison's first suburbs were developed, mostly on the near west side. From 1891 to 1899, 728 acres were purchased in the Madison area for development. According to an 1892 Wisconsin State Journal article, the largest real estate demand at the time was for "outlying lakefronts".

The time was ripe to fill the marshlands along Sherman Avenue. In 1892, the Willow Park Land Company was incorporated to purchase the lands west of Sherman Avenue along the lakeshore (see map of plats). Robert Wootton, a local businessman with varied investment interests, became president of the corporation. John Erdall, a prominent Norwegian lawyer, was secretary and Frank W. Hoyt, a real estate lender with his father, was treasurer. The company undertook a massive filling operation, using a dredge stationed off shore to fill the marshland with sand and rocks, at the rate of several thousand cubic feet of lake bottom per day. In April, 1895, the Willow Park subdivision was recorded and a few weeks later construction began on John Erdall's lovely Queen Anne residence at 1228 Sherman Avenue. Some of the lands east of Sherman Avenue were filled at the same time by local real estate entrepreneur, Leonard W. Gay, who named one of the new streets "Sidney" after a favorite son. Gay's Northside subdivision was recorded in May of 1897. Shortly thereafter, more filling operations resulted in Lenzer's replat, developed in 1899 for retired farmer Ludwig Lenzer, and Park's subdivision, recorded in the same year for W. J. and Margaret Park, downtown booksellers, whose house was nearby on Gorham Street. The pace of development in this new area during its first five years was lively, with 14 buildings constructed. Most of the houses on the non-lake side were built as single family houses for working class folk. The houses across the street were built for middle class people, including the families of a dentist-realtor, the superintendent of the City's street railway company and one of the Madison's leading attorneys.

Just to the east of the new development was a low, marshy section around the mouth of the Yahara River. The Madison Parks and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPDA) decided to purchase the site for Madison's first large in-city park. The Association had previously concentrated its activities in the purchase of pleasure drives on the outskirts of town. Many citizens believed, however, that the pleasure drives only served fairly wealthy people who could afford horses and carriages. The Association met that criticism with the proposal to purchase lands close to the downtown to provide recreational facilities for the "wage-earning" class. In 1899, the City of Madison, Joseph Hausmann, who owned the nearby brewery, and the Willow Park Land Company donated the first parcels of lakefront land to the Association for the future Tenney Park. Later the Association purchased the rest of the land from the owner of the old mill property. It is interesting to note that the treasurer of the Willow Park Land Company, Frank Hoyt, was also treasurer of MPPDA during this time. Another Sherman Avenue resident, Harry Butler, was the law partner of John M. 01 in, the president and guiding light of the MPPDA. Joseph C. Schubert, who would soon move from his family home at 403 N. Brearly Street onto Sherman Avenue, was also active in the Association, and served later as its second president.

While Tenney Park was being filled and developed, the Willow Park Land Company platted the remainder of their lakefront holdings as the Willow Park addition. After the outline of Tenney Park had been decided upon in 1905, the MPPDA, D. K. Tenney and others platted the Parkside subdivision facing the new park along Marston Avenue. Meanwhile, along Sherman Avenue, development of new housing continued apace. While the area continued to attract a variety of residents from many walks of life, many of the new homeowners in the district were downtown merchants, bankers and owners of small and medium-sized businesses. This is in contrast to other residential areas being developed at the same time in Madison, such as Orton Park, which attracted many professionals, and Wingra Park and University Heights, which attracted university professors. During this time, such people as Louis Hirsig, part owner of Wolff, Kubly and Hirsig hardware store, Charles Hoebel, owner and founder of the Madison Saddlery manufacturing company, and Emil Hokanson, owner of a large auto dealership, built imposing residences on Sherman Avenue.

The 1920s decade was a booming era in Madison, with major new developments on the east and west sides. Since Sherman Avenue was already well-developed, new construction in the 1920s and 1930s was in the form of infill, especially on the north end of the district. Sixteen houses were constructed in this period, essentially completing the look that Sherman Avenue has today.

Katherine H. Rankin, Preservation Planner, City of Madison, Sherman Avenue Historic District, 1987, National Park Services, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Baldwin Street North • Brearly Street North • Few Street North • Sherman Avenue

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