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Olbrich Botanical Gardens' History

The beautiful gardens and conservatory buildings that now comprise the Olbrich Botanical Gardens are the result of the collective work of thousands of people who have labored unstintingly for more than fifty years to make them a reality. But neither the gardens nor the larger park that surrounds them would exist today if it had not been for the vision, the energy and the generosity of just one man, Madison attorney Michael B. Olbrich.

No greater mistake can be made than the belief that taste and esthetic sense is a monopoly of the merely well-to-do or purely a product of formal schooling. The park proposed is intended primarily to bring back into the life of the worker confronted by the dismal industrial tangle, whose forces we all so little comprehend, something of the grace and beauty that nature intended us all to share. For this park has not a passive, but an active function. It is not to stand aloof, a treasure of the city, beautiful, still, reserved. This park above all others, with a warmth and strength of love - of love of all the working world - should hold out its arms, should invite them to itself, until its naturalness and beauty enter into their lives.

-Michael B. Olbrich, 1921
From a speech proposing a garden site on Starkweather Creek near Lake Monona

Michael OlbrichMichael Balthazar Olbrich

Michael Balthazar Olbrich was born in 1881 on a farm in McHenry County, Illinois. In 1898 he entered the University of Wisconsin and his outstanding success there, particularly as a debater, soon brought him to the attention of another former farm boy and celebrated University debater, Wisconsin's famous reform governor, Robert La Follette. Meeting La Follette made a deep impression on Olbrich and fused his interest in the law with a lasting interest in politics, and it also provided him with a mentor whose cause he would champion throughout his life.

After graduating from the University Law School in 1905, Olbrich began his own law practice in Madison. Professional success came quickly and Olbrich's active campaign on behalf of La Follette soon made him an influential figure in state Republican Party circles as well. Olbrich was also deeply influenced by the example of another Madison attorney, John M. Olin, the longtime president of the nationally known Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, a private organization that had created Madison's outstanding park system. In Olin, Olbrich found both inspiration and a perfect model for living a life that united a career in the law with a passion for social betterment and a love of the natural world. Olin was deeply committed to the belief that exposure to the beauty of the natural world was essential to general well -being and he believed that a constantly expanding system of public parks was the best way to bring this beauty into the life of the average city dweller. Ill health forced him into retirement in 1911, but his work in creating parks and in preserving the beauty of Madison's natural settings inspired a new generation of civic leaders of whom Michael Olbrich was to prove the most important.

Acquiring the land

Olbrich was especially interested in the preservation of direct public access to Madison's lakeshores and to Lake Monona in particular. This emphasis on Lake Monona arose out of Olbrich's concern that the residential areas on Madison's east side that were being developed adjacent to the factories that had been established along Williamson Street and Atwood Avenue were lacking in adequate park facilities. Olbrich saw that new residential developments were moving inexorably towards the lakeshore and he realized that only prompt action would save the still vacant shoreline at the east end of Lake Monona.

In 1916, Olbrich's attention focused on what was then a badly polluted marshland that bordered both sides of Starkweather Creek at the east end of Lake Monona. In its place he envisioned a sweeping expanse of park curving along the lake shore, a park whose crowning feature would be a municipal flower garden set in its midst. This park would then be linked to a parkway that would follow the north shore of the lake all the way to the recently completed parkway that bordered both sides of the Yahara River.

Single-handedly, Olbrich set about acquiring this property, using his own money and concentrating first on the area bordering Starkweather Creek. His first purchase gave him control of almost 2700 feet of shoreline, which he then offered to the city at cost providing that the new park was named "La Follette Park." This condition proved unacceptable to many due to La Follette's opposition to World War I so Olbrich kept the land, adding 800 more feet to the total in the next three years and bringing his personal commitment to almost $40,000. In 1919, after La Follette requested that his name not be used, Olbrich repeated his previous offer to the city. This time, support for Olbrich's proposal was widespread. Olin and the Park and Pleasure Drive Association brought in noted Chicago landscape architect O. C. Simonds to draw up a development plan for the new park. Olbrich then led two successful community-wide fund-raising drives to secure additional parcels of land and on July 22, 1921, the city took title to its new park.

In 1922 Olbrich formed the Madison Parks Foundation to raise the money necessary to complete the new park and to acquire the shoreline between it and the Yahara River parkway. By 1928 both goals had been achieved and Olbrich then turned the attention of the foundation to the acquisition of the first portions of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum on the shore of Lake Wingra. When Olbrich died unexpectedly in 1929, the city council responded by naming the new park at Lake Monona's east end Olbrich Park in his honor and in recognition of the remarkable legacy he had left to his adopted city.

improving olbrich propertyImproving the property

Without a doubt, the new park had required something of a visionary to see its potential when Olbrich first began to assemble it in 1916. The character of the site, its size and even its shape was much different than what we see today. In that day the shoreline of Lake Monona came to within one hundred feet of Atwood Avenue opposite today's Botanical Gardens and most of the land within the park boundaries was unusable and unappreciated marsh that was seriously polluted by the effluents discharged by the adjacent United States Sugar Company's beet processing plant.

During Olbrich's lifetime, the only part of the park that was truly usable was the playground area that is still located just to the west of today's Botanical Gardens. The remaining land awaited implementation of O.C. Simond's 1920 development plan, but no action was taken on this major project until 1931, when the city took over the parks system created by Olin and his Association and promoted James G. Marshall to be the head of the new Parks Department.

Marshall's first task was to coordinate the large work crews that were being organized by the city's Outdoor Relief Committee; the effect of these crews on Olbrich Park was immediate. Atwood Avenue's path through the park was straightened and the old roadway was torn up. The debris then became part of the fill that the city deposited in its newly designated municipal dumping ground, located in the marshy area east of Starkweather Creek between Atwood Avenue and the railroad tracks. Marshall then screened this area with trees and set his crews to work improving the existing playground area and the stretch of land along the lakeshore. By 1933, these projects were mostly completed and they were complemented by the tree and flower planting activities of neighborhood organizations like the East Side Business Men's Association and the Madison Garden Club.

By late 1935, enough work had been done on the park to make the comprehensive planning of its future both feasible and necessary. Consequently, Marshall oversaw the preparation of the first master plan for the development of the park. This plan was especially notable for including the first preliminary plan for what would eventually become today's Botanical Gardens. The proposed gardens, though quite different in design from what was actually built, were intended from the first to be located where the gardens are today. Unfortunately, this 11.5 acre site was still largely a peat bog and marshland in 1935, and its development lay far in the future.

The ensuing years saw the gradual filling in of all the marshy areas within the park's boundaries. The east end of Lake Monona and Starkweather Creek were both dredged and the sandy fill that resulted was then used to extend the shoreline of the park further out into the lake and to fill in low-lying areas such as the gardens site.

By 1950, the process of turning marshland into parkland was largely complete and most of Olbrich's dream of providing the east side with recreation space and lake access was a reality. All that remained was to crown this work with the flower gardens that Olbrich had hoped might one day grace the site.

Olbrich Garden developmentestablishing the gardens and the olbrich botanical society

The first work towards establishing the gardens began in 1952 when the Olin Trust Fund gave the Madison Parks Commission $22,688 to begin development. This resulted in the twin shelter buildings that are still extant today and in the large formal space behind them that was originally the Rose Mall. Another grant from the Olin Fund in 1957 gave the gardens its first greenhouse, a structure that was soon expanded to serve as an informal center for area gardeners.

By the early 1960s, however, it was realized that a real garden center building was necessary in order to fully realize the garden's potential. This led to the formation in 1962 of the Garden Center Club, a volunteer group whose members were to work ceaselessly over the next decade to establish such a center. In the meantime, the gardens continued to grow in size and in beauty. More greenhouses were erected and in 1965 the Olin Fund made possible the construction of the John M. Olin Fountain. In 1971 the Club's efforts were beginning to pay off and Madison architect Stuart Gallaher was commissioned to design a new garden center building. A major fund-raising effort finally made this elegant building a reality and it was dedicated in 1978 at a cost of $380,000.

The creation of the new Center was accompanied by the establishment of the Olbrich Botanical Society in 1979, a non-profit organization whose members support the Gardens' fund-raising and educational activities. The Society promptly redoubled efforts to expand the Gardens themselves. This resulted in the new Rose Garden, Perennial Garden, Herb Garden, All-America Garden, and Rock Garden. In 1986, over 60,000 persons visited the Gardens, which also hosted 345 meetings, concerts, classes, and events.

a larger garden center and the bolz conservatory

The success of the expanded Gardens, however, created a demand that the existing Garden Center was unable to fill. As a result, in 1986, Stuart Gallaher was again commissioned to design a greatly enlarged Botanical Center adjacent to his earlier Garden Center building. The Society then took up the challenge of raising the $4,600,000 needed to build it. Spearheaded by the Bolz family's offer to fund construction of the Botanical Center's diamond-domed conservatory in honor of Adolph C. and Eugenie Mayer Bolz, the campaign ultimately raised more than three-fourths of the money from private sources including more than 2,500 individuals, 80 area corporations, and 15 private foundations. The City of Madison Parks Division partnered with the Society to provide one-fourth of the total project cost.

The completion of the new Olbrich Botanical Center complex in 1991 was a milestone event in the history of Madison. The magnificent new Bolz Conservatory and its stunning tropical plant collection not only dramatically increased the number of people coming to the Gardens; it also turned the Gardens into a year-round attraction. Equally important but less visible was the construction in 1992 of two new production greenhouses, which gave the staff 10,000 square feet of energy-efficient growing space. Together, these two wonderful facilities ushered in a new era for the Gardens and set the stage for future development.

expanding the outdoor gardens

Now that it possessed facilities a much larger city might envy, the Garden staff began to focus attention on the outdoor gardens. In 1992, the first phase of the Wildflower Garden was begun. Even more important, though, was the development of a new strategic plan for the entire Gardens.

That a new plan was needed had become obvious by this time. In 1993 alone, more than 167,000 people toured the Gardens, 100,000 more than in 1986, putting considerable stress on the existing outdoor gardens and on the circulation systems of paths that linked them. In addition, new specialty gardens were needed, existing ones like the popular Perennial Border needed to be expanded, and others, like the All-America Display Garden, were ready to be phased out.

In 1993, a new Olbrich Gardens Master Plan, developed jointly by Saiki Design of Madison and Sasaki & Associates of Boston, Massachusetts, was completed and became the blueprint for the development of the Gardens for the next five years. In order to implement the first phase of the Plan, the Society embarked on a million dollar capital campaign in 1994 to fund the construction of a Donor's Arbor, a complete redesign of the Sunken Garden featuring an eighty-foot reflecting pool visually linking the Gardens to Lake Monona, and the construction of a new two-acre Perennial Garden. So great was the support for this campaign that fully 85 percent of the total was pledged by the end of the year with the rest coming in the following year. Another legacy of the campaign was the founding of the Olbrich Circle, a lifetime membership organization for major contributors, and the Olbrich Stewardship Fund, an endowment fund for the maintenance of the Gardens.

Construction on these major outdoor garden projects began in 1995, along with other improvement projects funded by the City of Madison Parks Division. By the end of the year a new footbridge linked the Wildflower to the Rock Garden, work had begun on the renovation of the Sunken Garden, a Children's Vegetable Garden had been established, and the first phase of the new Rose Arbor was in place.

Even with these projects being pushed forward, the ever increasing popularity of the Gardens was a source of concern as well as pride. In 1996, for example, 216,000 people visited the Gardens, nearly three times the number who had visited in 1986. Providentially, though, an opportunity arose in 1996 to purchase five additional acres of land adjacent to the Gardens owned by the Garver Feed Company. At the same time, Madison's Community Development Authority sold an additional seventeen-acre parcel to the Madison Parks Division for use as parkland and for Garden expansion.

Because the possibilities for future growth offered by the 22-acre landbank were so extraordinary, the Society immediately launched a $750,000 fund-raising campaign in 1997 for the purchase of the Garver Property. Thanks to a major gift from the American Family Insurance Company and large gifts from several other sources, this goal and the future of the gardens were assured late in the year and a new master planning process was begun.

Meanwhile, large gifts from the John A. Johnson Foundation in 1997 brought the restoration of the Sunken Garden and construction of the Donor's Arbor to completion.

Three recent projects underscore how Olbrich Botanical Gardens is still a work in progress. The new Thai Pavilion and Garden, opened in 2002, brought international attention to Madison's public garden. The Japanese Courtyard Garden was installed in 2004. In 2005, a spectacular, uniquely Midwestern Rose Garden opened.

In addition, Olbrich Botanical Gardens was chosen among public gardens in North America to receive the 2005 Award for Garden Excellence from the American Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboreta. The award is given to one garden each year which best exemplifies the highest standards of horticultural practices and has shown a commitment to supporting and demonstrating the best gardening practices.

Now, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, its dedicated staff, and a new generation of supporters and volunteers will have the opportunity to share and carry forward Michael Olbrich's enduring legacy to Madison.


Olbrich Botanical Gardens is operated as a public-private partnership between the City of Madison Parks Division and the Olbrich Botanical Society.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens | 3330 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704. | Phone: (608)246-4550 | Fax: (608)246-4719