Residents of Wisconsin’s capital can thank (or blame) James Duane Doty, former federal judge, territorial governor, congressman, and land speculator, for the design of downtown Madison. In 1829, Doty purchased more than 1,000 acres on the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona. After Wisconsin became a territory, in 1836, Doty lobbied strongly for Madison to become the territorial capital since he stood to profit from its selection.

Doty showed legislators meeting in Belmont his proposed plat of Madison (named after the fourth U.S. president, who had died June 1836) with streets that looked like spokes of a wheel coming off the Capitol Square. Thanks to the layout, Madison has its share of many wedge-shaped, or flatiron, buildings. The designation of flatiron is said to have come from its resemblance to clothing irons used at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the flatiron buildings in Madison is the Christian Dick block (building) at the corner of King, East Doty, and South Webster Streets, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Christian W. Dick, was an immigrant from Germany and a wine and liquor importer. As noted in the Register nomination, “Dick must have been confident in the growth of the city because in March 1889, he purchased two lots bounded by King and East Doty Streets that were then occupied by a one-story metal clad ice-skating arena.” He chose Conover & Porter, a relatively new firm, as architects.

Conover was born in Madison and received his degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He taught engineering there from 1875 to 1890. Porter came from Illinois. He was educated at Beloit College and the UW. Porter was recruited by Conover during his junior year, in 1886. Conover and Porter’s partnership lasted only 12 years, but the firm designed many significant buildings throughout the state during that time, including the Red Gym (Conover with Koch) and Science Hall at UW–Madison, both in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.

The eclectic Richardsonian Romanesque style, based on buildings of ancient Rome, was brought from Europe in the mid-19th century. Architect Henry Hobson Richardson embraced the style and popularized it in the latter part of the century.

According to the National Register nomination, the Christian Dick block is a “very fine, quite intact example of a late 19th century commercial building with Richardsonian Romanesque elements … and is the finest surviving example of the very few commercial buildings in Madison that were designed in this style.”

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Details of the Richardsonian Romanesque style suggested that a building would stand the test of time. Brick was used for the Dick building. Arched windows were another feature and can be found on the third floor. The front triangle of the building exhibits a conical tower. The original entrance to the building, below the tower, is framed by two sets of stone columns, another prominent Richardsonian 
Romanesque characteristic.

The original plan for Dick’s building included two stories; however, he was persuaded by Professor Frederick W. Kehl, a popular local dance teacher, to add a third story, which would be leased for three years as a dance studio. Because Kehl was also from Germany, perhaps that commonality factored into Dick’s adding that third floor.

A variety of business enterprises occupied the Dick building over the years, with his wholesale liquor business being in the basement. The Schlitz Brewery leased the corner store for a saloon until at least 1907. During Prohibition, it was a restaurant. Between 1902 and the 1920s, the second and third floors were a variety of hotels. At some point, a physician’s office was on the first floor accessible from the corner where diners in today’s Madison’s restaurant can view the street from a rounded booth. Sometime in the 1930s, the building was used as a temporary police station. Store fronts between the Christian Dick building and the current Majestic Theater held a furniture store and the Woman’s Exchange. The Woman’s Exchange, founded in Madison in 1887, was a shop where local housewives consigned handcrafted items and home-canned and baked goods to earn income for their families.

These store fronts have been incorporated into Madison’s. Where a dance floor had been part of Madison’s, the Good News Ice Cream and Café operates, having opened two years ago. The lower level, with bar and stage, is available for private events as well as for a weekly open mic comedy night. Businesses lease space on the second and third floors.

Christian Dick made annual trips to his boyhood home in Kerpen, Germany, mostly during the last decade of his life, with the goal of celebrating his birthday there on August 24. He died three weeks short of turning 84 in 1928. Not only was he a successful businessman, but Dick was exceedingly generous. Dick’s estate at the time of his death was worth $235,000 (the equivalent of more than $4 million today). Benefactors included relatives in the United States and Germany, Madison General (UnityPoint Health-Meriter today) and St. Mary’s Hospitals, and hospitals and other charitable organizations in Germany.

The Christian Dick building has been owned by Scott Lewis and Eric Minton for 20-plus years. Eric is also the owner of Madison’s. He says, “Central city restaurants are the fabric of the city, the essence of who the people are in that community. When visitors enter a building like ours, they are getting a taste of Madison—past, present, and future. Spaces like ours in a flatiron building are a natural draw for outsiders.”

General manager of Madison’s, Christina Pardo declares that the interior of the restaurant “just screams cozy,” especially in the winter when twinkle lights give it a fireplace feel. She appreciates the tin ceilings and the detail of the building.

Scott says that historic buildings have a great feel about them that just is not there in a new building. “The brick walls and hardwood floors give a warm feeling that you don’t get with drywall and glass. Some of the newer high-end offices have fancy trims, but you can’t recreate what was built in the past. It’s surprising how many people want to lease in a historic building.

“However, a historic building is more expensive to operate even with new mechanical systems and takes more work to keep up. Anyone looking to buy a historic building should spend time early on to make sure everything is watertight—roofs, caulking, and tuckpointing in good shape. Water is the biggest concern, especially in an older building.”

Experience Madison’s past through the eyes of its early pioneers, like Christian Dick, who left their mark on the city by the buildings they created. Explore the present with a taste of what the current owners are offering today.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.

Photographs by Eric Tadsen