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Madison’s Lost City


Tucked between Madison’s Seminole Highway and Fish Hatchery Drive, the University of Wisconsin-Madison tends to one of its most prised pieces of land — The Arboretum, comprised of seemingly never-ending trails and thriving scenery, the historic land is home of research, wildflowers, and restoration projects aimed to preserve the essence of Madison’s nature.  What many don’t know is that the Arboretum is also home to a forgotten suburbia now known as the “Lost City.”

The Lost City, which was intended to be the Lake Forest Community, was spearheaded and planned by the Lake Forest Land Company. The new housing development was the solution to an ongoing housing shortage that struck the country and Madison alike. Competing with neighborhoods and scenery near Wingra Park and Henry Vilas Park, Lake Forest was prepared to be “the greatest piece of work of its kind that has ever been undertaken in Wisconsin,” wrote former Governor Philipp in an article titled The Future of Madison published in first issue of the Lake Forester, a neighborhood newsletter for community.  

Due to the pressures of mismanaged money, the unapologetic nature of the land and World War I, Lake Forest was never fully developed. However, today the remains of what once was (or was supposed to be ) Lake Forest can still be found in the University’s Arboretum and a number of houses that were successfully built still stand in the surrounding neighborhood.

The promising suburb would have had a civic center for shops and restaurants, gardens with a flowing spring,  a public beach, and major boulevards which would have been named Capital Avenue and The Mall.

The project started off without a hitch, Lake Forest Company President Chandler B. Chapman and realtor Leonard W. Gay were the leaders of bringing the Lake Forest Community into fruition. The two were known to be a dynamic duo in city planning.

“Their record is unusual. Of the many local propositions they have undertaken, not one had come short of complete success,” the newsletter continued.  

The developers of Lake Forest were aware of Madison’s potential and were prepared to use their skills to capitalize on the growing population.

“Madison should be a city of 60,000 people within the next ten years at her present rate of growth,” wrote I.M. Kittleson in the second issue of the newsletter. “There is in Madison today, as elsewhere, a tremendous housing shortage that must be relieved. This can be done only by the building of homes and development of new residential sections.”

Active from 1911 until 1922, the Lake Forest Company’s original plans included 1,000 lots for young families to build their new homes, according to Arboretum Naturalist Kathy Miner, who hosts a tour of the Lost City annually.  

“They wanted to show people that families would want to be here but one of the thing that happened to them was there were more than 1000 lots in the plan and only 72 or 73 that were ever sold out of that plan,” Miner said as she pointed out shrub-covered bike path that would have been Capitol Avenue. “They were going to build houses as people wanted them, but the problem was people [who] bought [lots] as investments never intended to build. That was a problem for the company because they needed houses and people living there.”

Kathy Miner points out the foundation of a long-lost suburban home.

The swamp-like nature of the land and the shift in the national economy due to the encroaching World War also contributed to the downfall of the development, according to Miner.

“Building materials and young men that would have been the workforce were reallocated to the war effort instead of being available for domestic building,” she said. “Another factor–which is one we particularly emphasize at the Arboretum–is that this is very wet, low land and the developers thought they compensated enough for that fact that it was swapland–they brought in sand to fill and reinforce the streets and things like that, but they didn’t bring enough so the streets and the foundations, they didn’t sink all the way into the lake, but they didn’t stay level.”

Mismanaged money was one of the last major contributions to Lake Forest’s demise. The Madison Bond company, led by Victor H. Arnold, was responsible for handling the projects funds.

“The bond company they chose to back the project–the man running it was a scoundrel, and he mismangaged the money, he spent it entertaining movie stars and buying cadillacs and by the time they found him out the project couldn’t recover from the financial losses,” Miner said as we stood at what would have been the intersections of Martin Street and The Mall.

The Lake Forest Land Company eventually went bankrupt and the very detailed plan for Madison’s expansion was never realized. Although the wetlands have swallowed much of the pavement that would have been the Civic Center, Capitol Avenue, and many other aspects of the project that were started, there are many remnants of Lake Forest in the Arboretum. Once a year, Miner takes guests on a tour of the Lost City to find the foundation of houses that once stood tall. On that tour, visitors can also see the paths that were paved to be boulevards that connected Lake Forest to the rest of the city. Miner expressed that much of the Lost City has not been discovered yet but what they have found has uncovered the everlasting pride and vision many had in Madison’s future.