Partners in Preservation:  Saving U.W. Madison’s Historic Olin House

Partners in Preservation:  Saving U.W. Madison’s Historic Olin House

It's quieter these days around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and we are noticing it at our KONTEXT architects offices just off the square. Many of the students who are normally our neighbors have gone home for the summer or are working. But there is one place, no matter the time of year, you will find filled with voices and laughter. The Olin House is the official residence of the U.W. Madison chancellor and serves as a welcoming setting for various university-related functions like fundraising events. There are more than 100 gatherings held there each year.

The 11,000 square foot 30-room home built in the English Tudor Revival style is located at 130 N. Prospect Avenue in the University Heights neighborhood. And it has quite a history. Built in 1911 by John Olin, a U.W. Law School graduate who was a practicing attorney and university regent, Olin bequeathed it for use by U.W. Madison in 1924. Over time, many guests were welcomed there, but some special visitors included pilot Charles Lindbergh and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Yet, after more than fifty years, the Olin House was almost abandoned rather than renovated. Hard use and few updates seemed to date the once grand home, making it a difficult and costly preservation job. But just in time, a group of concerned citizens pulled together for a private fundraiser, and by 2008, efforts were underway to showcase its beauty once again. KONTEXT's Amy Hasselman, along with Arlan Kay, served as project manager and Bachmann Construction Company as general contractor. Several years of planning were needed before a final design for the renovation could be proposed—that process included interviews with former chancellors, caterers, house managers, and even physical plant staff. The Olin House Advisory Council also studied other chancellor residences in the Big 10. Because Olin House is a listed historic site, all plans had to be approved by the Wisconsin State Historical Society and Madison Landmarks Commission. Once approved, the team had 10 months to get it done. "It was a very aggressive time schedule,” Hasselman says. “Teamwork between all the players made it happen. Communication with Bachmann was fantastic. We have worked together for many years and trust each other as partners. I was very impressed by the commitment of the entire team—it was probably the best teamwork I’ve ever seen on a project. Everyone felt like they were part of something much bigger.”

Along with the short timeline, the overall renovation was a challenge. "Historic spaces were restored, non-historic areas were reconfigured to facilitate event staging, and a full commercial elevator was added, entirely within the existing building," Hasselman explains. "The second and third floors were turned into a self-contained home for private family living, away from the hustle and bustle of university events taking place on the first floor. All existing heating, air conditioning, electrical, data, and plumbing systems were replaced to meet modern standards." 

Any challenges in the ambitious plan paid off, and the project finished on schedule to rave reviews. Plus, it was just in time for a newly-named chancellor to move in.

The work on the Olin House has been recognized with a Preservation Award from the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation. It was a wonderful effort to save history for future generations.