Mayor Paul Soglin speaks to his history with the Madison Municipal Building, including its acquisition by the City of Madison in the late 1970s, and subsequent remodels.
Note: some minor edits have been made to the transcript for clarity. The transcript may differ slightly from the audio in places.
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: [quietly] Now!
Narrator: Paul Soglin. S O G L I N. Where should we start?
I: Your first, uhm, adventures as... Did you have an adventure here before you were mayor? In this building?
N: Well... I suppose that before my role as mayor there were, uh, two things that brought me to the building that are, I [emphasized] think were significant.
First, in June of 1972, our law school graduating class got admitted to the, uh, the bar of western district of Wisconsin and were sworn in by Judge Doyle. Uhm, that wasn’t the first time I was before the judge. There were a number of cases that I was involved in regarding free speech. Soglin v. Kaufmann, uh, they were argued by civil rights lawyers from Madison. Percy Julian [Jr.] and then joined by Bill Kunstler or Arthur Kinoy and a couple of others who had been doing civil rights work nationally. So, a couple of appearances in, in the judge’s chamber, uh, in the courtroom.
But I also was a stamp collector and so was often here at the Post Office to purchase new issues, new, uh, new stamps that that were coming out. And, uh, pick up some [UNINTELLIGIBLE] plate blocks and things of that sort. Uhm… Particularly the commemoratives of, of that period. A lot of space stamps back in the late sixties and the seventies.
Then, getting to where we are today with the building… In I believe it was ‘78, the decision had already been made that a new Post Office building would be, uh, constructed on Milwaukee Street and that the court and the other related, uh, justice functions were gonna move to what was later to become the Kastenmeier Building, uh, at the corner of Henry and, uh, West Mifflin. So this was to become federal surplus property. And there’s a process: the federal government put a value on the building and then offer it up in order of hierarchy. First to the state government, then the county, and then the municipality. The State was going through the extensive process of completing the construction of Jeff I, II, and III, but we were concerned that the state might want this for additional state offices.
I went to State Senator Fred Risser who was chair of the Building Commission and basically said can you leave it for us? And we need it. City offices are growing. We’re running out of space. We’re already using a couple of annex facilities for some departments like Housing and what was then the City’s Welfare Department. And we’d like to consolidate and use the old federal building. So he was very agreeable. The State did not put in bid so now we had to sorta wait and hold our breath for thirty days, not knowing what the County was going to do. And we were hoping that they would just kind of ignore it, which they did.
So after the County had its month period to consider purchasing the building we, uh, we had funds in a in a not designated for a specific building if I remember correctly but just for general acquisition of public property and we wrote out the check uh after the City Council approved it.
And our vision was to go in phases, uh, at least mine. First to consolidate those other offices that were scattered around downtown as well as moving some of the overcrowded offices, uh, what ended up coming over here was the Plan Department, Transportation. And then eventually, uh, if the county needed to expand, turn over city space in City Council building to the County. And then all city offices would be located either in this building or in an adjacent addition to it. Which never obviously, at least at the time we’re making this recording, hasn’t happened.
At that juncture I left office in April 1979, Joel Scornicka was elected and then his administration in the next couple years did all the design work, all of the significant work in regards to relocating the offices from these other sites. And that work, I can’t remember, was completed probably completed around ‘82 or so. ‘83.
And then this building served us very well. The room that most people are familiar with is the room formerly known as 260, which is known as the Judge’s Chambers and that was used for everything from Board of Estimates, later renamed Finance Committee. It was used for all the recordings that were done by City Cable TV. Uh, a lot of committees met here. And of course, on occasion, when we couldn’t get the Council Chambers, City Council meetings were held in in that room.
As we got to twenty years beyond that first renovation, so now we’re talkin’ basically you know sometime around 2002, it became evident that more work needed to be done here. And that really became a crisis by about 2010, 2012. So we, uh, first had the difficult chore of figuring out how to raise the $30 million, because of all the other large capital projects. The building was really quite stressed by that time. The mechanical systems were failing... Uhm. We had a lot of code problems that we wouldn’t tolerate in a privately owned building with this much public use and we kinda had to hold our breath once we completed the design, figured out where everyone was going to be located…
And by the way, one of the nice things about the new design is that in the process of restoring, for example, the hallways to their original configuration and restoring the building, we actually ended up getting more space. And badly needed, uhm, meeting rooms. Meeting rooms for committees, meeting rooms for city staff… And that’s really one of the nice features about the building.
Then, uh, we ran into some problems… . We went out to bid and the bids all came in over budget and so I made a few phone calls including a call to Cullen who ended up becoming the contractor on the project. And I think part of why they did it was in effect civic pride, which was, it wasn’t just to be a contractor working on the building but it was also to make sure that the City of Madison had this really fine, restored, uh, facility for public use. So here we are today for the dedication!
I: Excellent! Do you have any thoughts about, now that this part is done? About the future in… twenty to fifty years?
N: Well… At this juncture we don’t know what’s going to go on the back half of this block. That was the other great thing about this site. Is that once the loading docks were torn down for, that had been used by the Post Office, we had this magnificent square block in downtown Madison with tremendous value. And, uh, this building occupies only about a third of the footprint and so we are up in the air as to what happens next. We’ve not been able to persuade the County to pick up our space in the City County Building so until that happens, I don’t think any city administration would have serious thoughts about having all city offices on this site, which is what I’d eventually like to one day see.
I: Thank you!
N: All right!
I: And this is Jackie Lawton asking questions, by the way.
[END OF RECORDING]