Stop Tearing Down. Start Tearing Apart

Madison's new central library. (credit: JH Findorff & sons INC)

Architecture is experimental, in nature.

Just as a physicist runs experiments in his lab, so does the architect. And like all experiments, architecture sometimes fails. In the 1960s and 70s, the experiments failed a lot.   

What we’re left with in our laboratories—our cities—is streets dotted with lifeless, dimly lit, hulking bodies of buildings. We can’t blame the experimenter for his failed attempts, because failing is how we learn. How we grow and improve.

But none the less, we are left with a lab of failed experiments. They work, sure. They function. But architecturally, we like to imagine a life without them. And the knee-jerk reaction has long been to tear these buildings down.

But I’m here to say, don’t tear them down. Tear them apart.


Adaptive reuse is a big buzz word. And in fact, it’s a great idea too. It would be difficult to find someone who isn’t charmed to pieces by the renovation of a 90-year-old warehouse. Myself included. But we should begin to look seriously at adaptive reuse for the younger structures that similarly no longer meet our needs.

Madison’s premier example is the beautiful new Central Library. A 2009 plan originally called for the 1965 library’s demolition. A brand new facility would be build a half block away, but a complex construction scheme eventually collapsed in negotiations between the city and developers.

Only nine months later though, the city unveiled plans for a renovation of the current building—for about $8 million less. The bones of the current structure would stay, but most of the interior-- and much of the exterior-- would be stripped down to only structural supports.

The renovated building, which opened in 2013, has been an undeniable hit. It’s also a huge architectural design success and is an important piece of the puzzle in what is quickly becoming a very attractive N. Fairchild Street downtown.  

Instead of rebuilding from scratch, innovative design saved the structurally sound 1965 shell, creating a modern building. This approach saved millions, was more sustainable and… let’s be honest, is pretty damn cool.


Whether by inspiration or coincidence, the city has seen a series of mid-20th century adaptive reuse proposals from private developers in the last year.

Urban Land Interests proposed a renovation and facelift to the Anchor Bank building on the Square in spring 2014. By summer, the project had grown to much more—including new structures— though the adaptive reuse bank building portion has remained.

A huge eyesore on the Square, this renovation would keep the useful structure already in place, but adds a much (much) needed level of exterior attractiveness to the location.

Proposed anchor bank renovation (credit: Wisconsin state journal)


Then in September 2014, Hovde Properties proposed renovating and updating what could be—almost undeniably—downtown’s ugliest building. The AT&T Building at West Washington Ave and Henry St will stand intact, but portions of the interior will be renovated and new exterior windows will be added. Landscaping will also be updated (an often overlooked but critical key to rehabilitating old sites).

I can’t say anything short of full demolition could completely cure this failed architectural experiment, BUT the drawings show a new design that will make the building more than bearable… without having to tear it down. Sustainable and cost effective.


One month later, the Inn on the Park hotel—just across the corner from the Anchor Bank Building, and almost just as unsightly—announced a $10 renovation and exterior facelift. Saving the (what I assume are) structurally solid bones of the mid-1960s building, the redesign will, in effect, replace a huge eyesore.

The new façade is a vast improvement—a stately exterior fitting for the Square. Though perhaps not as grand as the original Park Hotel at the same site, the “new” hotel would bring architectural dignity back to the corner without having to tear down and start from scratch.

proposed inn on the park renovation (credit wisconsin state journal)

Madison has more than its share of failed architectural experiments that, despite aesthetic short comings, are sound and useful buildings. But a precedent has now been set: spare the wrecking ball for a cheaper, more finessed option. Save money while creating new spaces in a more sustainable fashion.

Stop tearing down these buildings and, instead, start tearing them apart.

So hey, City County Building, what do you say? You ready?