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Brittingham Park
Address:
829 West Washington Ave.

Hours: 4:00am - 10:00pm
Park Type: Community
Acres: 25.81
Restroom: Yes
Drinking Water: Yes
Shoreline On: Monona Bay


The Lake Monona shoreline that now makes up Brittingham Park was once so neglected that a speaker at the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPDA annual meeting in 1904 called it a "disease breeding hole."  It was weedy, littered with kitchen garbage and dead fish, and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. He pointed out that ninety percent of the travelers to Madison saw this bay as they either entered or left the city by rail.   He proposed the development of a park on Monona Bay.1

The city had begun acquiring a small area of Monona Bay in 1903, but was not ready to develop a large park there.  In 1905, Thomas E. Brittingham, reputedly Madison's richest citizen, stepped in with an $8000 donation to the MPPDA for the acquisition of a 27-acre park.  Brittingham had made a fortune in the lumber industry.  Besides Brittingham Park, his donations helped create other Madison landmarks, including Neighborhood House on South Mills Street, Madison General Hospital (now Meriter), and the statue of Abraham Lincoln on the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Bascom Hill.  He was a Regent of the University of Wisconsin, and after his death, his house (now known as Brittingham House) was donated to the University.  It is the official home of the University of Wisconsin System President.  Brittingham's contributions for the Brittingham Park area continued through 1908 and totaled $24,500.2

The major work involved in creating Brittingham Park was dredging sand from Lake Monona to fill in marshland.  The sand base was covered with topsoil and trees and grass were planted.  For example, in 1908, the MPPDA planted 17,463 trees and shrubs in Brittingham Park.3

Part of Brittingham's contribution was $7500 for a bath house.  However, to get this money, the city would have to provide $5000 for a boathouse.  The bath house was extremely popular, with a total attendance of 50,000 during the 1910 season.  The bath house provided bathing suits, and it was said that the over 300 suits available did not have time to dry off at all during the season.  There was a line waiting to take the wet suits as soon as the wearers came out of the water.4  The bath house was eventually torn down.  The boathouse, attributed to the architects Ferry & Clas, is on the National Register of Historic Places.  

  1. Annual Report of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, 1904.
  2. David V. Mollenhoff, Madison: A History of the Formative Years. Dubuque, Iowa : Kendall/Hunt, 1982, pp. 327-331.
  3. Annual Report of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, 1909.
  4. Annual Report of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, 1911.
The Brittingham Boathouse
601 N. Shore Drive, Madison, WI

The Brittingham Boathouse is the oldest surviving parks building in Madison. It pre-dates the Madison Parks Division, and is a direct link to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, begun informally in 1892 and incorporated in 1894. The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association raised private funds to develop and maintain scenic drives and parks in and around Madison. The Association developed some of Madison's most charming public spaces – Brittingham, Hoyt, Olin, Burrows, Tenney & Vilas Parks and the Glenway Golf Course. Until 1931, the Association functioned as the city's unofficial parks department. In 1938, the organization disbanded after completing final title transfer of its property holdings to the city. The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association's influence extended beyond park development to other areas of civic life where it set standards for public service.

In 1908, John M. Olin, President of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, wrote of the need in Brittingham Park for a public bathhouse and boathouse. Some neighborhood residents lost their private boathouses when Brittingham Park was created, and it was Olin's desire to both serve the neighborhood needs and provide some compensation for their loss.

Thomas E. Brittingham, already a large donor to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, stepped up to the challenge. The prominent lumberman and philanthropist (and donor of Brittingham Park, Madison General Hospital, Neighborhood House at 29 S. Mill St., the 1st UW student infirmary and the statute of Lincoln on Bascom Hill) pledged $7500 for the construction of a public bathhouse, if the city would donate $5000 for a boathouse. The city agreed.

Landscape architect and city planner, John Nolen, drew up a sketch plan and site arrangement for each building. These sketches were sent to the prestigious Milwaukee architectural firm of Ferry & Clas for final designs.

The boathouse, constructed of cypress, was erected by early 1910. In 1921 the south wing was extended to add six bays, using the same design and materials as the original structure.

In 1977, the boathouse was named a City of Madison landmark. In 1979 the City of Madison spent over $50,000 to renovate the building. It received a new roof and electrical system and the entire exterior was sanded and painted. In 1982 it was listed on the National Historic Landmarks Registry.

Unfortunately, over the decades, the building's condition deteriorated mostly because of the unstable dredge material used for fill under the original structure. Although the boathouse was partially restored in 1979, no significant renovation funding was available to repair the structurally failing building.

In 2001, Camp Randall Rowing Club, Inc., in partnership with the Madison Parks Division, the Madison Parks Commission and the Madison Parks Foundation, restarted the effort to save the Brittingham Boathouse. Phase 1 of the Brittingham Boathouse Renovation Project (approximately $850,000) was completed in 2006. It included lifting and relocating the structure to an adjacent location with more stable soils and the complete historic restoration of the exterior of the building, along with the establishment of historic landscaping surrounding the structure.

The money for this extensive renovation came from the fund-raising efforts of Camp Randall Rowing Club, the donations of private citizens, the Hollister trust (left over from the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association days), City of Madison TIF funds, fund-raising efforts of the Madison Parks Foundation, Park Development Fees and Madison Parks Division capital budget funds.

Under the terms of a long-term lease, Camp Randall Rowing Club uses the Brittingham Boathouse to provide competitive high school rowing programs, summer Learn to Row programs for middle and high school students and for a WeCanRow program for women cancer survivors. Madison residents can rent rack spaces at the boathouse for privately owned rowing shells.

On May 3, 2007, the 2007 Historic Preservation Award was presented to Camp Randall by the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation in recognition of its outstanding preservation efforts on the Brittingham Boathouse. On June 11, 2007, the Wisconsin Historic Society Board of Curators and Awards Committee selected Camp Randall and the Madison Parks Department to receive the Historic Preservation Award. These awards honor the work of Camp Randall Rowing Club and the City of Madison in protecting the Brittingham Boathouse, a Wisconsin historic property.

In 2009, Camp Randall Rowing Club, in partnership with the Madison Parks Division, began the next phase of the renovation project, involving the addition of restrooms and running water for the many rowers using the boathouse, along with the installation of an exterior water fountain for the fishermen, runners and bicyclists using Brittingham Park. This phase (approximately $120,000) was completed in the summer of 2011.

The final phase of the Brittingham Boathouse Renovation Project involves the historic renovation of the building's interior spaces. Much of the handcrafted interior cypress wood was removed during the initial construction and is currently in storage. This final phase contemplates reuse of the original cypress and reconstruction of the original interior architectural details of the boathouse.