Historical Development
of the Nakoma Neighborhood

Ancient artifacts found during construction of several Nakoma houses demonstrate that the hills of Nakoma overlooking Lake Wingra were used as camp sites by the Ho Chunk Indians and their ancestors. After European settlement beginning in the 1830s, the land became a part of the rural Town of Madison. Until the early 1900s this land was devoted almost entirely to farming. Cutting across this land in the nineteenth century was a road whose route roughly corresponded to today’s Nakoma Road. This road ran westward from Madison towards Verona and the lead mining region beyond and was a major transportation route in the 1800s. In fact, the growing amount of traffic on it led to the conversion of the 1854 Morgan farmhouse into the Spring Tavern (site 1) only six years after it had been built. The Spring Tavern is now the only 19th century farmhouse remaining in Nakoma. As early as 1856 the area had a large enough population to justify the creation of Rural School District No. 6 and the construction of a small frame schoolhouse. It was located on the site of the present Thoreau School and remained in use until 1917. It was from this pastoral landscape that the future suburb of Nakoma would be created.


By the early 1900s, profound changes in the city of Madison were bringing the practice of agriculture in this area to a close. Beginning around 1890, Madison experienced major population growth, thanks to the growing stature of the University of Wisconsin, the growth of jobs in state government and the growth of Madison’s industrial sector. The population density grew to the point that the traditional quality of life in the formerly gracious neighborhoods in the downtown area deteriorated as houses were squeezed between older ones and new apartment buildings and flats were built. This resulted in an exodus of families of every class seeking a better life in the suburbs. Developers platted several suburbs in the countryside, of which the near west side plats of Wingra Park (1889) and University Heights (1893) were the first to cater to the more affluent members of the community. These were “streetcar suburbs,” so-called because of their proximity to the streetcar lines that enabled suburban homeowners to commute to their places of business in the city’s downtown and on the University of Wisconsin campus.

Madison continued to grow through the 1920s. Between 1910 and 1920, Madison’s population increased by almost 50 percent. To cater to the new demand, a new generation of real estate firms came into being, some of which took an active role in the creation of the suburbs that they offered for sale. Of these firms, none was more active or more successful than the Madison Realty Company. This firm was established in 1913 by men who were already experienced in the creating and selling of suburban plats and were quick to see the possibilities of developing a new suburb still farther to the west of the city’s existing ones.

Building a new suburb that lay beyond the reach of the city’s existing streetcar lines was not without its problems, however, since the downtown still remained the place of work for most Madisonians. Suburbs that had been built beyond the reach of the streetcar prior to 1913 had been a disappointment to their sponsors. People were reluctant to buy lots or build houses to which they could commute only by foot, either human, or, for the wealthy, horse.

Indeed, such a fate appears to have befallen the first land to be platted in what became Nakoma. In 1911, the University Land Company bought farmland from the Gorham Family on the hill overlooking the Spring Tavern. The company hired local surveyor Ray S. Owen to design a curvilinear plat called Gorham Heights, which included the future Spring Trail, Huron Hill, Miami Pass, and Oneida Place. But it was apparently a case of too little, too soon, since the company sold only a few lots, and no houses were built.

The solution lay in the automobile. What had begun as a rich man’s novelty around the turn of the century was by 1913 becoming a viable alternative to existing forms of transportation. Between 1907 and 1913 car sales in the city were averaging eighty a year but between 1913 and 1916 this jumped to 300 per year. By 1916, autos outnumbered horses in the city and bankers were offering the first auto loans, all of which meant that real estate developers could now look to land beyond the reach of the existing streetcar lines as areas for potential development.

As a result, in 1914 and 1915, the Madison Realty Co. purchased the Gorham Heights plat and portions of several other farms that straddled the Verona Road and began the process of turning them into what would become one of Madison’s most distinguished neighborhoods.

The overall landscape development plan for the new suburb was laid out by prominent Chicago landscape gardener Ossian Cole Simonds. His extensive work for the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association had culminated in several of Madison’s most beautiful parks, including Vilas Park on the shore of nearby Lake Wingra, and in the design of two west side suburbs — the Highlands, platted and opened for sale in 1911, and College Hills, platted and opened for sale in 1912 and now part of the Village of Shorewood Hills. The curvilinear street plan the company adopted for Nakoma was the work of company director Leonard S. Smith, a UW professor of engineering. It incorporated and was inspired by the existing plat of Gorham Heights. The Nakoma lots were placed on the market in July of 1915.
Several years afterwards a director of the Madison Realty Co. described their vision:

The rolling landscape facing south and east, with an unobstructed view of Lake Wingra, the Capitol, the University, and the city, seemed an ideal location for a large community of homes....The lots are large and the streets are broad and inviting as they follow the sweeping curves at the base of the hills. The general result was to leave the land as nature made it, unmarred by the cutting through of streets, so common in the conventional city plat.

The Madison Realty Co.’s new plat was a modest success but it was a success that took hard work to achieve. To overcome buyer reluctance to live beyond the end of the streetcar lines, the company created one of Madison’s first private bus lines to carry homeowners to and from the downtown. They also undertook a massive local advertising campaign that was designed to alleviate buyers’ concerns while trumpeting the new suburb’s virtues. Lower taxes in the Town of Madison were extolled while concern over the lack of city services was addressed by the notice that the company itself was furnishing “water, gas, electricity, sidewalks, shade trees, and transportation.”

Advertisements in the local papers stressed that in Nakoma, a Chippewa word that was said to mean “I do as I promise,” saloons were forbidden, as were businesses, multi-family dwellings, and the moving of older buildings onto new lots. Much was also made of the prominence of the local men who were the directors of the Madison Realty Co. and of the high capitalization of the company, which, at $350,000, was far beyond other Madison suburbs of the day.

The directors of the Madison Realty Co. also realized that while a suburb like Nakoma could be especially appealing to families with school-age children, the existing one-room frame schoolhouse would not attract them. Thus, in 1917, the company replaced the old building with a new $15,000 Prairie style grade school, designed by Madison architect Alvan E. Small; they also contributed $450 for books for its library. In addition, the company sponsored neighborhood activities, underwrote the printing of a neighborhood magazine – the “Nakoma Tomahawk” – and sponsored a street-naming contest that resulted in names of Indian origin that the streets still bear to this day.

All of this work gave the new suburb an instant visibility, but it did not translate into immediately successful sales. By 1920, twenty-one houses plus the Clements building (site 5) and the Nakoma School had been built and a number of other lots had been sold. But housing construction from 1916 to 1920 was hampered nationally by a business depression and World War I and locally by a glut of new suburban lots being offered for sale.

The relative isolation of Nakoma’s first residents was relieved by the residents themselves, who created both informal and formal ways to spur community spirit. One of the earliest of these efforts was the formation in May 1920 of the Nakoma District Welfare League by a group of 30 Nakoma women seeking to promote neighborliness and the common welfare of the residents (still active as the Nakoma League). Other, more informal activities included popular neighborhood picnics and holiday parties.

After 1920, sales and construction in Nakoma boomed, partly because of the naming of Paul E. Stark as the Madison Realty Co.’s sales manager. Paul E. Stark (1884-1945) had been active in real estate in Madison since 1908, when he and his father had established the Stark Land Co. By the time he joined forces with the Madison Realty Co., Stark had established a solid track record of sales success. It was to him more than any other single person that the eventual success of the Nakoma plat was due.

In 1920, the Madison Realty Co. joined with Nakoma residents to incorporate the Nakoma Homes Company to help insure a permanent, highly desirable residential community. This non-stock corporation was made up of Nakoma dwellers, giving one vote for every $100 of assessed value of their property in the suburb. The Nakoma Homes Co. kept unused lots clean, provided street lights, repaired and maintained streets, and provided fire and police protection. The organization also provided for signs and gates to be erected throughout the suburb and for the landscaping of public areas. Impressive stone gateways for a number of Nakoma’s streets were designed by the firm of Hare & Hare of Kansas City; a duck pond was built across Nakoma Road from the Spring Tavern; and the UW’s first landscape architecture faculty member, Franz Aust, was hired as a consultant for the Nakoma neighborhood during the 1920s and 1930s.

In addition, all future purchasers of property in Nakoma were required to sign an agreement with the Nakoma Homes Co. that essentially placed restrictive covenants on the property. For instance: lot set backs and building heights were restricted, no businesses were allowed to operate in Nakoma buildings, and no multi-family homes could be built. Another restriction required that the exterior design of all building plans be approved by a licensed architect, who had to be approved by the Madison Realty Co. or the Nakoma Homes Co. A final restriction, added three weeks before Nakoma was annexed to the City of Madison in 1931, established racial barriers for those seeking to own or occupy property in Nakoma, a type of restriction that, regrettably, was all too common in that period and was also included in the deeds of a number of other contemporary Madison suburbs.

The formation of the Nakoma Country Club in 1921 stimulated sales. The creation of this club on land just to the east of the original plat was an especially significant event: so-called “country club suburbs” were a closely watched national trend in suburban development. Since country clubs had already been developed or were under construction on lands adjacent to the Madison suburbs of College Hills and Maple Bluff, Nakoma’s inclusion on the short list of suburbs having such amenities was viewed as being important for its prestige.

By the mid-1920s, new houses were appearing on every street of the original plat. Replats of several blocks by the Madison Realty Co. in 1922 and 1926 added to the number of available lots. In 1928, more replats and the first addition to the original plat were recorded. This was the Randall Addition, which expanded the original plat in a southwest direction along Nakoma Road and Cherokee Drive. New construction continued unabated until the deepening of the Great Depression in 1931 and 1932 brought real estate activity in Madison and in Nakoma to a halt. Even the annexation of Nakoma into the City of Madison in 1931 failed to spur construction, which did not resume on any scale until 1934. By 1936, however, construction had resumed at a pace that was even greater than in the 1920s. Several more new additions were added to the original plat in 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939. By 1945, nearly all of the lots in the pre-World War II portions of Nakoma were occupied.

 



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