You can tell just by looking at me that I like my food. I appreciate good food, be it in 5-star restaurants, other people’s dining rooms, or diners, drive-ins, and dives. Read more
One of the last questions I ask myself as I pack my bags and get ready to move on is whether or not I could live wherever it is I am leaving. Considering how spoilt I am in the homes I have – Ireland and Hungary – it takes a lot for me to say yes. And it takes a helluva of a lot for my yes to be a resounding, unhesitating, yes! But Madison, WI? There’s a city I could move to tomorrow (assuming the next POTUS is someone I can bear to look at).
State capital and university town, Madison is big enough not to know everyone and small enough to be walkable. And it has heart. I could tell. I can tell a lot of the spirit of a town by its signage. What? I hear you say. You’d move countries based on a few signs? Well, I never said my brand of logic was for everyone. But given how I make my decisions, that’s more research than I’ve ever done.
The overwhelming sense I got was one of culture and caring mixed in with a healthy dose of quirkiness and little fear of being different.
The city sits between two lakes – Mendota and Monona (the latter is the one into which Otis Redding’s plane crashed). And there are three more close by: Lake Waubesa, Lake Kegonsa and Lake Wingra. Of its 94 square miles, over 17 are under water. It’s quite something to look out over the frozen expanse of water and wonder how much lotto I’d have to win to be able to afford a lakeside property.
Home to about a quarter of a million people,
Madison oozes an appeal rarely found in my American experience (even though I’m a great fan of the US of A). Everywhere I looked, I saw humour, generosity, and a charming ‘what the hell, life is for living’ attitude. I admit to having a serious case of the moves. And it wasn’t just the thoughts of warm cookies being delivered up to 3am. The city seems to be making a concerted effort to stay local, support local, and be different. That I applaud. The city’s farmer’s market is the country’s largest producer-only market with over 300 stalls. And on a per capita basis, the people here buy more books than anywhere else in the country (okay, so there’s a big university, which by the way numbers 24 Pulitzers and 17 Nobel prizes in its alumni…. perhaps no surprise about the books). It has 260 parks in the city itself and one of the 10 free zoos in the country. And perhaps what’s most endearing – its nicknames include Mad City and Madtown.
The State Capitol is at the city’s heart. No building in town can be taller than it and nothing new can be built within a mile of it. It’s the second tallest dome in the country, after, of course, the one in Washington DC. The day I was there, a massive schools art exhibit was in progress and there was
certainly a lot of talent on display. Stunningly gorgeous, it was inviting and inclusive and almost homely, despite the gilded ceilings and the fancy columns. I was particularly impressed with a poster pointing to understanding assumptions.
Walking the streets of Madison, I was completely taken with the place. And I started to think about going back to school – again. But I’m being fanciful, I know. Still, though, it’s dreams like these that keep me young inside. The possibilities life offers are endless. How cool is that, eh?
And, of course, there’s also the FLW connection. I know I keep banging on about him but what can I say, I like the chap. There’s a convention centre in Madison that he designed – or at least, he drew the original drawings. There was some fighting with City Council over his
plans to extend out over the lake (and I wondered about the Infinity Room in Jordan’s House on the Rock and how it is supposed to be a tribute to Wright). His signature is there, though, on the wall, as is a bust of the man himself. There’s also quite a stunning photo exhibition of his work which gives some idea of what a proliferate architect he was. I was suitably awed. Yes, Madison left its mark. It’s an amazing little city in a state that has much to offer by way of hospitality and frozen custard. I mightn’t be on the next plane, but it’s been filed away for future reference.
When I get something in my head, I’m like a chicken with a speck of blood.I start to fixate. I have even been known to obsess. Sometimes, though, life interrupts my efforts to realise whatever it is I’ve gotten wrapped up in and something else takes over. But not always.
Having discovered that the House on the Rock wasn’t one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s creations, I was determined to visit a building that was. Taliesin, his home place, was closed for the season so I had to look farther afield. Apparently some proud owners of Wright’s houses are happy for people to rock up to their front door and ask for a viewing but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. If I owned one, I can’t think of anything more annoying. But GP, the queen of Wisconsin, came to the rescue.
In the city of Milwaukee there’s a church – the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. It was one of Wright’s last major commissions. He actually died before it was officially opened, which is a shame. A shame that he missed seeing the effect it has on people.
I was also eager to see it because I had heard that it was what Ayn Rand based the Stoddard Temple on in her book, The Fountainhead. But that bubble has burst. Stoddard, apparently, was based on a Wright-designed church, but on a 1906 Unitarian church he designed in Oak Park, Illinois – Unity Temple. [Fascinating article here on the Rand/Wright relationship.] But I didn’t know this when I was there. The one I was sitting in was built to human scale, with no traditional religious imagery (or minimal imagery, if you discount the floor plan being in the shape of a Greek cross). It matched.
It is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in. And so comfortable. Not a word I’d usually associate with a church. But why not? What is it about church architecture that says no to comfort? Perhaps people might spend more time in them if they were more welcoming.
The pre-service (if that’s what it was … ) started at 8.30 am so we had an early start to be sure to be there on time. When we arrived, the car park was nearly empty – not a good sign. And there were just four others in the church, not including the priest (cantor?), who was already in full voice. Did I mention it was Greek Orthodox?
I was clueless. We sat. We listened. I got lost. People started arriving around 9.20 and the mass itself started at 9.30. And people kept arriving. Conversation happened all the while. Old and young alike stopped to say hi to friends and neighbours. It was all very convivial and so not Roman Catholic. The choir in the upper balcony was in fine fettle. The congregation resembled the cast of My Big Greek Wedding and was remarkably white. It made for some great people watching. Two hours into it all, things were still going strong. But the pews were comfortable. I said that, right? As neither of us had been baptised into the Orthodox faith, we couldn’t take communion. This was clearly stated on the leaflet. But we could partake in the bread afterwards (even if I’m still not sure what that was about). It wasn’t easy to figure out the ritual or to understand all that was being said and sung. But it did feel holy. In a surreal sort of way.
I was particularly taken with how relaxed everyone was. And how right the church felt. How usable. How for the people. I’ve been in modern churches and not liked them much. I think they often fail to capture the spirit of it all. I’ve been to fabulous old ones, too, that while stunningly gorgeous, are just a tad too ornate to be real. But this was different. It was simple, usable, and cosy without being small. It didn’t take much imagination on my part to see the Man himself stopping by and sitting down for a chat.
Back in 1958, in a letter in which he refers to the church, Wright had this to say:
The edifice is in itself a complete work of modern art and science belonging to today but dedicated to ancient tradition—contributing to Tradition instead of living upon it.
This week, thousands of miles removed from Milwaukee, I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience Wright’s work. The last time I spent so long in a church was in Prague, one Easter, when I had to turn to someone standing beside me and check to make sure I was at mass, in a Roman Catholic Church. It went on forever with 13 readings … in Czech. That I resented. This was different. This was special.
On occasion my own stupidity astonishes me. I’m gullible. There are times I find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. And sometimes I just get the wrong end of the paper plate. Like thinking that the House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, was a controversial creation by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Having just missed the last tour the day before, we drove back the following morning in plenty of time to make the 11 o’clock first tour of the day. As we hung around the visitors centre, it soon became clear that Wright’s wasn’t the mind behind the madness. It was Alex Jordan’s. And who, in the name of all that’s ever been draughted, was Alex Jordan, we wondered and why had I given up a day in Chicago to tour the one and only thing he ever designed or built? A house that has been called the tackiest place in America. A house that some call creepy? A house that others say is evil?
The story has it that Jordan’s father wanted to build a parody of FLW’s work in the shape of a Japanese house. Jordan took over the project from him and the original house came to be, a warren of low-ceilinged, dark rooms, lit with lamps that look like Tiffany lamps but are not. In fact, lots of stuff looks like other stuff, but isn’t. It seems Jordan took great delight in fooling people and would pay more for a good forgery that he might for the real thing. The place has no freestanding furniture or designated bedroom and while certainly intriguing and different, it’s not built to live in. It’s a house, not a home.
I was enthralled. I still haven’t decided if I liked it but it certainly made an impression. Every nook and cranny has something to look at. The lighting is poor though and the carpeted ceilings take some getting use to. Seats are built into walls. Trees and waterfalls vie for space with pianos and double-bases. Random collections of musical instruments play tunes like the Hungarian Rhapsody. It’s all very surreal.
The house itself is accessed by a long wooden walkway that wends its way through the treetops high above the ground below. The view is magical. Especially in winter.
As Jordan added bits and pieces, people passing by started asking for a look around. And he started charging 50c for the privilege. He used this money to indulge his obsession for collecting things, sending staff around the world in search of oddities to add to his retreat. (Where was I when he was hiring?) If he spent three nights in the place, that was it. And while I liked its quirkiness, it would he horrible to heat, terrible to read in, and way too dark for sanity. But it is certainly something.
As we went from room to room walking in procession along the winding corridors that seemed subterranean, I was struck by a sense of displacement. I usually have no trouble imagining myself living anywhere. I have a fondess for stately homes and can lose myself in fantasies about holding court around a vast dining-room table without much trouble, the overwhelming sense I had here was one of extreme loneliness. Jordan called it a retreat and it is just that – a retreat – somewhere to escape to, to be alone, to lose yourself in. And get lost I would. Never the best at
orientiation, I was completely lost and didn’t know which way was up.
The lamps, the blue-glassed windows, the stained glass, the stones, the rocks, the trees. My favourite room in the whole place though, wasn’t the library. It was the infinity room. At 218 feet long it has 3264 windows
and extends unsupported for about 140 feet over the valley below about 15 stories high. Now this was a room I could spend time in. If it had a chair. Or a couch. I’d even settle for a beanbag.
I imagine though that it could get a little hairy in high winds and I’m not all that sure about the glass floor at the end – looking through that was a little head-wrecking. But it is absolutely stunning. Breathtaking. Even if it wasn’t FLW.
But the house was only the half of it. The madness continued. In 1971, Streets of Yesterday opened. This indoor re-creation of old time America is a nostalgic look at how things used to be. There’s a hotel, a cinema, a theatre, shops, houses, and what’s claimed
to be the world’s biggest carousel. There’s fortune-telling machines, French postcard viewers, cobbestones, and trees. There’s all sorts of stuff you can try out with tokens. And because we were only getting half the tour (it being winter), we got our
tokens for free.
The full tour can take a day and is miles long – literally – dotted with restaurants and cafés. The complete attraction experience. While I thought the house was mad, this was bordering on twee. Not quite there, but it’s just one angelhair of candy floss away. And it’s all down to one man’s determination to build stuff people would want to some see, an attraction tailored-made for middle America. Frank Lloyd Wright it ain’t but it’s certainly something.
I was excited. Very excited. The day was planned. A lunchtime catch-up with a cousin I’d not seen in years in Wisconsin Dells, followed by a visit to the Clown Museum in Baraboo. And then on to Spring Green to see the House on the Rock, the Franklin Lloyd Wright masterpiece. It didn’t get much better.
I have fond (and not so fond) memories of rooting in the lining of my bag to see if I could conjure up another quarter in some vain attempt to make good on my losses in Vegas. I wouldn’t have thought myself able to pass a slot machine or a roulette wheel or a Caribbean Stud table without stopping to place a quick bet. A couple of years ago, in Vegas, I discovered that the casino gene had left me, so when my cousin suggested meeting for lunch in the Ho Chunk Casino in Wisconsin Dells, I didn’t have to clean out my wallet and leave the credit cards at home.
Waterfalls running indoors beside escalators. Eagles suspended from a blue-cloud ceiling. All running to the background music of slot machines and the heady smell of cigarettes and beer. I came, I saw, I ate, I chatted, and I never laid a bet. A minor miracle.
Wisconsin Dells needs to be seen in summer when the boats are running and you can get a full view of the amazing rock formations. Add that to the fact that my cousin’s hubby is a dab hand at making brandy old fashioneds and I can see a reason to come back.
Next stop was Baraboo, the winter home of Ringling Bros., and Barnum and Bailey circuses from the late 1880s to the end of WWII. Where is Dr Who when you need him… I’d happily go back in time to say, 1904, and come visit then. It must have been amazing. All those exotic animals, off-duty clowns, acrobats with nothing but trees to swing out of… just imagine the craic in the pub on a Saturday night. I was like a child. So excited. But all for nowt. The place was closed up. For the winter. I was gutted.
“What began in 1959 with less than an acre of land, six old circus wagons and a boatload of passion, has now become an internationally recognized and respected institution encompassing 64 acres, 30 permanent structures, seven winter quarters buildings along Water Street, plus the Ringling Bros. Circus Train shed complex. Circus World is Wisconsin’s National Treasure.” This I got from the website. The rest I saw through the windows and fences. Cruel, I thought. So cruel, to be on the outside looking in.
Yet another reason to go back to Wisconsin in summer. The 4th Annual Big Top Parade takes place in July… mmmm… And while I’m in the vicinity, I might just check out the summer clown workshops at the clown school. Never too late to entertain thoughts of a career change.
Baraboo looked like an interesting little town but it was too damn cold to walk around. With temperatures at the minus level, the wind had a bite to it that would break through the downiest down. We stayed just long enough to snoop around the buildings, bump into the local alligator, peer through a few windows, and satisfy ourselves that there was no way we were getting inside. Later investigations revealed that Bradbury Robinson, he who threw the first forward pass in football history, grew up here. And we missed out on visiting Aldo Leopold’s shack (actually a rehabilitated chicken coop) – a historic monument that dates back to the 1930s. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel. As I added yet another note to my mental list of places to revisit, we soldiered onwards, to Spring Green.
Wisconsin is flat. And famous for its cheese. They’re big into cheese. Green Bay Packers fans are known as cheeseheads because they wear hats that look like blocks of cheese. Whatever curdles your whey, I say. We passed many old barns in chronic states of disrepair and as I wondered aloud why they were left standing, I learned that it’s from these barns that the ever-so-expensive furniture made from distressed wood gets its start. Yup. The barns are left standing to age the wood. Could it be that natural aging that ups the price? Can a price be put on the humidifier effect of Wisconsin air?
We pulled up to the House on the Rock [having been denied a view from the road because the scenic look-out was closed (?)] knowing from the website that it wasn’t open but hoping that we might get to see it from the outside anyway. We were fast becoming old hands at sneaking around. But we saw cars. And people. And when we made to park, an attendant came over and told us that they’d just closed. The last tour had been at 3pm! So much for updating your website, lads! I can’t tell you how unimpressed I was. I could see the programme for the next few days reshuffling itself as I wondered what I was prepared to give up so that we could drive back the next day to see it all. I really wanted to see it – in part because I quite like FLW and in part because of my late friend Rex who had been heavily influenced by the architect when he designed and built his house in Kentucky. I figured I could pay homage of sorts. So I mentally gave up Chicago…
It had been a good day, even if Winsonsin was closed. I’d caught up with my cousin, passed up on a bet, added Clown School to my bucket list, and would know the way back tomorrow.
In Wisconsin recently, I had cause to give the descriptive ‘new’ some thought. I knew that New Jersey was named after the Channel Island of Jersey and had always thought that New York was the American version of York – but not so. It was apparently named after the Duke of York. Had I known that Glarus was a canton in Switzerland, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised to hear that New Glarus in Wisconsin was called after it, too. But I didn’t know so I was surprised … surprised to see so many cows in an American town.
It was originally settled back in 1845 by some 108 Swiss pioneers who came to the USA in search of a better life; Switzerland was experiencing a depression of sorts at the time. Since then, others have followed – and still follow – to the point that Swiss-German is still spoken, the street signs are bilingual, and people can dance the polka. If you look up, you can see cows, too. Twee? Yes. But who am I to criticise – there are enough plastic leprechauns around the world to make anyone blush.
But all things Swiss aside, the town is most famous locally for its beer. The New Glarus Brewing Company‘s signature brew is – yes – Spotted Cow. But it also has some other unusually named offerings like Two Women and Moon Man (CG, EZ, ZsG – you get samples; GG you get the marketing mags :-)) We did a self-guided tour and commented both on the clinical lack of smell and on the rather expensive samplers on offer in the tasting room. Just as well I’m not a beer-head.
There are more than 100 microbreweries in the state and some vineyards, too, which surprised me given how bleedin’ cold it was. Hardy grapes they must be indeed. [I was delighted though to nab a bottle of Death’s Door – that good Wisconsin gin so highly recommended by my gin man at Castle Leslie – and at just $22, it put the amount of tax levied on Irish booze into stark perspective.] New Glarus was deserted – practically. But it didn’t take much to imagine how jammed it would be in the summer. Best avoided at the height of the season methinks.
But there was more to new than New Glarus. While in the state, I was introduced to a Brandy Old Fashioned for the first time and learned that WI drinks more brandy per year than all other states combined. The BOF comes in two forms – sweet and sour. For the sweet, you put a sugar cube in a glass and sprinkle with bitters. Then add an orange slice and a maraschino cherry. Add some ice, top with brandy and a splash of club soda. For the sour, just replace the cherry with an olive; my preference. I had quite a few over the course of my few days in state and the best was definitely in Norm’s Hideaway– a fab neighbourhood bar on the lakeshore in Fort Atkinson, where I had my first ever Friday night fish fry. Walleye is a new fish favourite. Served with potato fritters and apple sauce, it was quite the mix. There was a wait – there’s nearly always a wait, but as Norm himself says: Sit back, relax, and look at the wait as a time to enjoy a cocktail of choice and the company of those you’re with instead of getting impatient at us for being busy! I didn’t need to be told … not even once.
So a Brandy Old Fashioned and a down-home fish fry headed up my list of ‘new’ only to be beaten into second and third place, respectively, by frozen custard. Yep – frozen. Not the yellow runny Bird’s Eye stuff served piping hot that I grew up with or the lumpy cold stuff that goes into custard tarts but flavoured frozen custard that in my case took the form of a Turtle Sundae – frozen vanilla custard, warm caramel, topped with salted pecans and the dreaded cherry (ever since someone told me that maraschino cherries were preserved in formaldehyde, I’ve detested the things). Culver’s has been serving up fresh frozen custard since 1984. Their’s is an interesting story. My first was courtesy of the lovely GB – a must-eat, he said, and he was right. My second was at the rival Kopp’s in Milwaukee. That one was so big (three scoops) that I had to share with MJP – herself a Kopp’s fan. On a mission now to find the best in the state, my third was from the award-winning Michael’s in Madison – which unlike the other two venues, ticked all the boxes in my imaginary American diner (a hat-tip to BP for the recommendation).
But taste tells. And in the end, it was the Kopp’s one that did it for me. Perhaps because I got extra pecans. I wondered at my nephew’s mission to find the best hazi lemonade in Budapest when he visited last summer – but he has something there. The search for the best certainly adds flavour to a holiday.
This week, as I bask in the warm glow of the extra poundage that came with such hands-on research, I’m grateful for the new experiences, the new tastes, the new flavours, the new friends. Life doesn’t get much better.
And one more cow…