The following article was selected by the editors from Volume 39 #2
of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (Winter 1955-56) pp. 68-72.
Copyright © 2000 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
A Building is Achieved By Vernon Carstensen
"Approximately fifty-five years ago, October 19, 1900, the Society opened its new building on the University Campus. Here is the story of the great effort put forth to bring about the removal of the Society from the State Capitol to its permanent headquarters."
Both the University and the State Historical Society have grown up with the State. The Society in fact was organized in 1846 before Wisconsin became a state. The University was provided for in the constitution, created by the first Legislature, and opened in February, 1849. Both began under modest-one might almost say straitened-circumstances: the University was housed for more than a year in rooms of the Female Academy located a block off Capitol Square on the present site of Central High School; the first library of the Society was kept in a small bookcase in the Governor's office. When North Hall was completed in 1851, the University was moved to its present site. In 1855 the library of the Society was moved to the basement of the Baptist Church on the Square. Eleven years later the Society was given space for its library and other collections in the new capitol building. By 1881 the rooms of the Society were crowded and agitation began for a separate building. The Legislature refused to provide funds, but the Society was assigned additional space in the capitol in 1884.
Meanwhile the Society and University had found a community of interest. This was in large part the work of Lyman Copeland Draper who had become secretary of the Society in 1854 and who held this position until the end of 1886. Long before coming to Wisconsin, Draper had begun to collect material on "our unwritten border history." He never wrote the histories and biographies he planned but he bequeathed his great collection on "border history" to the Society. This material, together with the other collections of the Society, had a profound influence on the study and writing of American history at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States. Draper selflessly devoted himself to sustaining and enlarging the Society and he enlisted the support of prominent and influential citizens. Moreover, he encouraged the University professors and their students to use the Society library. 1
When Draper retired at the end of 1886, Reuben Gold Thwaites was named as his successor. Born and educated in Massachusetts, Thwaites had come to Wisconsin with his parents in 1866. He had worked at various trades and had studied at Yale for a year before he came to Madison in 1876 as managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. He held this post until Draper induced him to come to the Society. Thwaites, perhaps even more than Draper, cultivated leading citizens of the State to win support for the Society. Like Draper he conceived of the Society as primarily an educational institution and he worked assiduously to strengthen the already intimate ties with the University. Like him, he regarded the Society library as an agency to serve the faculty and students of the University. In short, the Society library was to be the American history arm of the University library. F. J. Turner's seminar in United States history met for years in a room of the Society at the capitol. The extent to which the Society library was used by University students and faculty in the late 1880's is suggested by the action of the curators in authorizing the employment of an additional attendant at the circulation desk during the periods that the University was in session.
Early in 1892 President T. C. Chamberlin persuaded Richard T. Ely to come to Wisconsin from Johns Hopkins to establish the new School of Economics, Political Science, and History. Ely's coming spelled opportunity to Thwaites, who promptly wrote John Johnston, president of the Historical Society, that the library of the Society had now "become more necessary to the University than ever." The library, he declared, was already the richest in the West in American and English materials but it had few French and German books and documents. These would have to be added to serve Ely's new school. "For many years," Thwaites wrote, "the library of this Society has been the chief literary laboratory of the University students." The University library, on the other hand, was occupied with collecting technical and scientific works and had all it could do to keep up. Thus each library had its function and both were actively engaged in educational work. With Ely's coming and the opening of the new school, Thwaites declared that "a new and broad field of usefulness in higher education has been opened to us." 2
Thwaites also saw to it that members of the University administration and staff were closely allied to the Society. The president of the University, members of the faculty, and members of the Board of Regents had served on the Board of Curators of the Society in Draper's day, but Thwaites managed to extend and strengthen this interlocking directorate. He took pains to make sure that responsible officers of the University and the Society understood each other's needs. It is clear that Presidents Chamberlin and Adams, as well as many members of the faculty and of the Board of Regents, agreed that any improvement of the Society library strengthened the University.
The additional space given the Society in the statehouse in 1884 was crowded by the time Thwaites became secretary in 1887. Accordingly plans began to be made to obtain funds from the Legislature for a separate building. It was first proposed that this building be erected as a Civil War memorial. The Milwaukee Sentinel approved this project, pointing out that the Society possessed "the largest and most valuable collection of books and manuscripts west of the Alleghanies." 3 Thwaites added that not only did the library need more space but the invaluable collections were not safe in their present location. A bill to provide funds was introduced in the Legislature in 1889 but it did not pass. Thwaites later wrote to Levi E. Pond, sponsor of the bill, that "The pronounced opposition of Senator Spooner was a damper to our cause. . . ." 4
But Thwaites was already making larger plans, hoping to bring the Society and the University libraries together into one building. In 1900 Thwaites stated that T.C. Chamberlin had first proposed this scheme in 1891, but Thwaites himself wrote to Professor Herbert Baxter Adams of Johns Hopkins in November, 1890, telling him that "a scheme, sub rosa, which both the University and the Society are devotedly praying for" was to bring "the State University and the State Historical Society into even closer relationship, at least in the direction of placing both libraries under the same roof, with joint management, thus avoiding duplication and doing the greatest possible amount of good." 5
In the early 1890's the time was ripe for such a project. Both the Society and the University libraries needed more space. The State was prosperous and the Legislature was beginning to be generous in its support of the University. Moreover, in 1890 John Johnston, a Milwaukee banker and a prominent Democrat, was elected president of the Historical Society, a post he continued to occupy for a decade. In 1892 Johnston was made a member of the Board of Regents. He served as a regent until 1900 and was president of the board from 1897 to 1899. B. J. Stevens, a Madison banker, for many years an active and effective supporter of the Society, became a regent in 1891 and served on the board until 1903. Others who had served as regents were now members of the Board of Curators. This overlapping of the two boards no doubt facilitated the later campaign.
In 1891 the curators created a legislative committee consisting of Thwaites, N. B. Van Slyke, a Madison banker and former regent, C.E. Estabrook, formerly attorney general, Lucius Fairchild, onetime Republican governor, and Burr W. Jones to plan a campaign to obtain legislative funds for a new building. In the fall of that year Chamberlin, perhaps with prompting from Thwaites, proposed that the Society and the University join forces to get a building for both. But no formal action was taken. Several months later Chamberlin resigned as president of the University to accept an appointment at the University of Chicago. His successor, Charles Kendall Adams, had taken an active part in planning new library buildings at the University of Michigan and Cornell. As a trained historian he appreciated the importance of an adequate university library. He came quickly to support the Thwaites-Chamberlin plan of bringing the Society collections to the campus and housing both the libraries in the same building. There is no doubt that his political skill, leadership, and determination were of great importance in the success of the project. His first step was to induce the regents to make a formal and specific proposal to the curators of the Society. At a special meeting of the regents on January 4, 1893, almost two weeks before he was formally inaugurated, Adams read a report on the conditions of the University. A new library, he declared, was one of the most pressing needs. He recognized that up to that time the University had depended heavily on the Historical Society library. If the Society library could be housed near the campus, he was sure that many more students would be able to use it. The situation was simple. The Society needed a new building. The University needed a new library building. The University would like to have the Society located near or on the campus. Accordingly he recommended to the regents that plans be worked out to house both libraries together on or near the campus. 6
Quite obviously, the regents were not taken unaware by this proposal. They directed that the executive committee serve as a committee of conference to take the matter up with representatives of the Historical Society. B. J. Stevens, chairman of the executive committee, was also a member of the Board of Curators of the Historical Society. The regents' committee was authorized to propose that the curators of the Society and the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters join with the regents in asking the Legislature to erect a building "for the joint accommodation of the libraries of the three institutions, and the gallery and museum of the Society." On January 10, six days after the regents' meeting, Thwaites called the curators of the Society together in a special session to consider the regents' proposal. Charles Kendall Adams, E. Burdick, G. B. Burrows, I. S. Bradley, J. H. carpenter, G. P. Delaplaine, M. R. Doyon, C. E. Estabrook, C. N. Gregory, H. H. Giles, W. H. Hobbs, John Johnston, J. A. Johnson, Burr W. Jones, W. A. P. Morris, Simeon Mills, C.G. Mayers, J. B. Parkinson, George Raymer, B. J. Stevens, H. Steensland, M. M. Strong, R. G. Thwaites, F. J. Turner, and N. B. Van Slyke were presented a distinguished and influential assemblage.
Thwaites presented a full statement--it covered nine typed pages--canvassing the proposition. It was clear that the Society needed a new building. The rooms in the capitol were unsafe. The building might collapse and there was always danger that it would catch fire and burn-as indeed it did in 1904. The space allotted to the Society was too small and there was no possibility of getting more in the capitol. Indeed, the State officers needed the rooms now occupied by the Society. Already several clerks from the office of the secretary of state had desks in the Society rooms. The University library was likewise poorly housed and overcrowded. It was regarded by University authorities as "a conspicuously weak feature of the institution." The regents of the University were determined to have a new library. They would like to have the Society and Academy join in asking the Legislature for a fireproof building so that "these three educational institutions" of "kindred interests" could be housed under one roof.
Then Thwaites turned to an examination of the function of the Historical Society: 90 percent of the patrons of the library, he reported, were University students and faculty, 7 percent other investigators, and 3 percent officials and other visitors. If a new University library were built, the patronage of the Historical Society library would decrease. If on the other hand the Historical Society library were moved to a site near the University, student patronage would be much larger.
Thwaites felt that a union of the libraries would increase the usefulness of the Society. He confessed that he had once feared that if such a union were arranged University authorities might come to regard the Society as an annex or might even swallow it. On further consideration he had decided that this was unlikely if the Society remained true to its primary function: "For the Society is an educational institution, if it is anything; it has no other reason for existence." Indeed, as evidence of their good faith the regents had proposed that the Society exercise supervision over the building if it were to be jointly occupied by the two institutions.
Thwaites acknowledged that some people were afraid that the Society would become isolated if it moved into the unsettled area near the University. "This argument," he declared, "would have had force a year or more ago; but the electric car system has brought the town and the University near each other." The trip from the Capitol Square to the University now averaged but four minutes. Thus "distance is practically annihilated: the ten percent of our readers would find no difficulty in being placed on a par with the ninety percent." Far from being isolated if it moved to the campus the Society, Thwaites declared, would find additional patrons. This was particularly true of the museum which would draw more people if it were placed near the collections in Science Hall. Moreover, the city was growing toward the University, and a new Society building, if located on the University campus, would soon be near the center of population of Madison.
There were other advantages in making a move to the campus. If the libraries were. brought together, duplicate purchases could be eliminated; the strength of the several libraries would be consolidated, and the State would be saved the cost of buying a site for a Society building. Securing a site on the Square would cost at least $50,000; or $20,000 on State Street. And it was entirely possible, Thwaites reminded the curators, that if the Society did not join the regents in this request, they might not get a library. He felt that it was the essence of statesmanship to join with the regents in trying to get a joint building. He concluded his statement with the question: "Shall we by this proposed alliance take what we can probably get, or shall we wait single-handed for something we may never obtain? This is the question for us to determine."
The curators appeared to be little disposed to resist the alliance. Simeon Mills, who thirty-five years before as legislator and then as regent had played an influential part in bringing the University into existence, now proposed a resolution agreeing to the regents' proposition, Napoleon Bonaparte Van Slyke, also a former regent, offered amendments to the resolution. In its final form the curators agreed to the regents' proposition "provided that the title of the site shall rest in the name of the Society as the trustee of the state." The minutes record that Van Slyke, Stevens, Burrows, Johnston, Turner, Johnson, Adams, Doyon, Thwaites, Parkinson, Mills, Burdick, Strong, Delaplaine, Jones, Carpenter, and Giles entered the discussion before the resolution was brought to a vote and adopted unanimously. 7
Thus the crucial decision was made. Four days later representatives of each board met to prepare the bill for the Legislature and to plan their campaign. 8 Although the Legislature was sympathetic, it was in no mood to vote funds for the new building and to provide the other funds asked for the University. By the end of March, Thwaites had concluded that the Legislature of 1893 would probably not vote money for the library. He explained to one of his supporters that the University had other needs which took precedence over the library bill but he was confident that, if the Legislature of 1893 failed to provide funds, the next Legislature would do so. Already the University officials had agreed they would make no other claims for funds. 9
Thwaites was correct. Funds were not granted in 1893, but before the next Legislature met, Thwaites and Adams, working with their numerous associates and supporters, had the ground work well prepared. Even the newspaper in distant Marinette declared: "The great state of Wisconsin cannot afford to be niggardly where such great interests are at stake." 10
As Thwaites anticipated, the Legislature of 1895 did pass the bill. There was no mention of the University in the title of the bill, as adopted. It was described as an act "to provide for a fireproof structure to protect and accommodate the collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, including the state historical museum and the records and relics of the late Civil War." Besides making the first appropriation for the building, the act created a building commission representing the Governor, the Society, and the regents. The regents were to provide the land although title would be held by the Society. The building was to be used for the "library and museum of the . . historical society and such other libraries and collections as may be placed in the custody of said society." 11 There was no direct reference to the University library in the bill.
It was five years before the building was completed. The initial appropriation was intended only to permit a start to be made. Thus regents and curators had to return to the Legislature for additional funds in 1897 and again in 1899. But by April, 1900, the building was near enough to completion to permit representatives of the regents and curators to arrange the first allocation of space. 12 Finally, on October 19 the building was dedicated. Thus the "chief literary laboratory of the University students," with its rich collections now made more easily available, had at last come to the campus. The work in history and the social sciences at the University was immeasurably strengthened by this union. One other result of large importance should be recorded here. The removal of the Society library from the capitol left a gap which would soon be filled by the creation of the Legislative Reference library.
1. For an excellent account of both the Society and its first superintendent see William B. Hesseltine, Pioneer's Mission: The Story of Lyman C. Draper (Madison, 1954); see also Reuben Gold Thwaites, "The Society," in The State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Exercises at the Dedication of its New Building, October 19, 1900; together with a Description of the Building, Accounts of the Several Libraries contained therein, and a Brief History of the Society. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites (Madison, 1901), 22.
2. Thwaites to John Johnston, March 17, 1892, in the State Historical Society Library.
3. Sentinel, Dec. 7, 1888.
4. Thwaites to Pond, July 25, 1890, Historical Society Library.
5. Thwaites to Herbert Baxter Adams, Nov. 8, 1890, Historical Society Library.
6. Reports to the Regents, C :405, University of Wisconsin Archives, Memorial Library.
7. Board of Curators, Minutes of Proceedings, 1854-1897, 2:509.
8. Regents Minutes; Jan. 18, 1893, University of Wisconsin Archives, Memorial Library.
9. Thwaites to E. H. Ellis, March 29, 1893, Historical Society Library.
10. Marinette Eagle, Feb. 9, 1895.
11. Wisconsin Session Laws, 1895, chap. 298.
12. Thwaites ed., Historical Society . . . , 83ff.