Reflecting on 25 years of the Monona Terrace

​​On Monona Terrace’s 25th anniversary, Neil Heinen reflects on the nearly-60-years-in-the-making project that’s encountered as much pushback as it has had influence.
Monona Terrace at night with views of the capitol
Photo by Oberon Jagodinski/OVJ Photography

How important was the effort to make Monona Terrace a reality? In 1992, when WISC-TV began its long tradition of broadcasting editorials, the subject of the very first editorial was Monona Terrace. Befitting a project as tortuous as Monona Terrace already was, the editorial urged interested citizens to familiarize themselves with an advisory referendum in advance of a binding referendum that fall, the wording of which was so convoluted that a “no” vote meant “yes,” you wanted the project to move forward. The shoreline parks referendum was just one of the hurdles the nearly 60-year-old project would need to clear. It faced five lawsuits between 1990 and 1997 (and an additional five lawsuits earlier) as well as dire predictions of devastating, irreversible damage to Lake Monona and economic ruin. Some thought it was a blight upon the pristine Madison landscape, but instead, 25 years later, Monona Terrace is a jewel in the capital city’s skyline, and our city has been changed for the better.

Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center has helped define Madison. It is the result of a historic city, county, state and private-sector partnership — and one wonders if it would even be possible today.

Few can match the perspective of then-Madison Department of Planning and Development Director George Austin. While most of the credit for the creation of Monona Terrace goes to uniquely ideal, if unlikely, bedfellows — former Madison mayor Paul Soglin and George Nelson, who was vice president of Television Wisconsin Inc. (the company that owns Madison Magazine and WISC-TV) — Nelson himself says it was Austin who held the project together. And Austin says it was nothing less than a true, civic saga.

Famed urban planner John Nolen had a vision of connecting the Capitol and the community to the lake in the 1900s. Then Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a “dream civic center” design for Madison in 1938. After that, it took nearly 60 years for Monona Terrace to become a reality in 1997. “The fact this vision from Nolen interpreted by Wright had the power to still be relevant nearly a century later and powerful enough that these groups would coalesce around this and make it happen is truly phenomenal,” Austin says.

exterior of Monona Terrace

Courtesy of Monona Terrace

The obstacles were many and daunting. The 1980s were a tough decade for Madison. Many thought the Madison Civic Center ended hope of building Wright’s dream, but even the Civic Center was a compromise — all development proposals submitted to the city in 1980 failed, then Soglin helped craft the idea of turning Capitol Theater into the civic center.

Outward migration was the norm, and the downtown was lifeless and increasingly barren. Not a lot was happening. Monona Terrace was a statement of confidence and hope for the future of Madison, says Austin. Still, the project’s supporters had to deal with the rash of lawsuits and a host of unlikely partners, including a Republican governor, a Democratic mayor and a business community that opposed the project when Wright was still alive.

But the heroes of this story, and there are many, wouldn’t let the civic vision die. Many of those heroes are no longer with us to celebrate an anniversary they would have surely relished. But for those who remain, the project’s impact is lasting. W. Jerome Frautschi, a Republican, and State Rep. Mary Lou Muntz, a Democrat, co-chaired the finance committee. Austin says the experience was “transformative” for Frautschi, and without it there likely wouldn’t be an Overture Center for the Arts. Also forgotten by too many is the $500,000 gift from Frautschi’s wife, Pleasant Rowland, to build the fountain atop the main entrance to the center ­— a feature important to Wright that was originally left out of the project for budget reasons.

It’s hard to imagine Monona Terrace without that fountain. And it’s hard to overstate the impact of two elements that helped win broad citizen support for Monona Terrace. The first was the strategic decision to name the building the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, and the second was Madison business and civic leader Mary Lang Sollinger’s inspired idea to sell commemorative, personalized tiles for the exterior paths around the building. Solinger’s Friends of Monona Terrace sold more than 10,000 tiles and raised more than $1 million. Finding and visiting one’s tile remains a singular draw for the center.

Monona Terrace 3

A 1938 sketch shows an early imagining of Monona Terrace. In 1991, the Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace Commission published a 98-page report a few years before the grand opening in 1997, which was the year Madison Magazine created a special edition publication. Courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art-Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) and Madison Magazine archives

Aside from civic pride, of course, Monona Terrace’s benefits can be measured in terms of economic impact. Suffice to say, the remarkable coalition of civic, business, labor, public and private-sector leaders celebrating the grand opening of the convention center in 1997 did not envision the state Legislature’s modification of the room tax law in 2015, making it harder for Monona Terrace to receive room tax dollars, to say nothing of a pandemic. Morgan Murphy Media Chief Financial Officer Glenn Krieg, a longtime Monona Terrace board member and an appointee to the room tax commission, counts both among the biggest events that influenced the operation of the convention center. Both were challenges that needed to be overcome.

But, says Krieg, “It’s coming back nicely.” Revenue is up in 2022 over the previous two years and the future looks bright. Connie Thompson, the executive director of the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, concurs. “With the long-awaited Judge Doyle Square hotel and Lake Monona waterfront design study competition projects both moving forward [and] supporting downtown Madison and our facility, we’re poised for growth,” says Thompson. “Key business is also returning, and we’re seeing pent-up demand for leisure travel, in-person meetings and rooftop events.” In addition to the Frank Lloyd Wright design, the lakefront vista, downtown location and a well-maintained facility, Krieg identifies two key selling points, including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification. “That brings in conferences,” he says.

The other selling point: great service. “Once people get here, we get great reviews by our customers,” Krieg says.

fountain on the rooftop of Monona Terrace

Courtesy of Getty Images

It’s been 25 years since the Monona Terrace became a reality. The sky did not fall and the lake did not drain. Monona Terrace’s yearly economic impact has averaged $28 million since the facility’s opening, equating to $698 million over the last quarter-century. Says Austin, “Compared to 25 years ago, we’re a different city … a better city. Some may disagree … they liked what we were. But we have continued to find ways to reinvent ourselves, get better, and in the spirit of Monona Terrace, you can bring some of that to modern-day issues.”

Neil Heinen is the former editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.

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