Skip to main content

Historic Olin House set for renovation

June 15, 2006 By Dennis Chaptman

Design work on a privately funded renovation of Olin House, the official residence of the University of Wisconsin–Madison chancellor, will begin this summer, university officials announced today (June 15).

The decision to undertake the renovation follows the recommendation of the Olin House Advisory Council, a group of community and university volunteers that was chaired by Wayne McGown, former director of the University Research Park.

The council examined a variety of options and found that despite the extent of the work required – largely due to the home’s aging and failing infrastructure – the tradition and history of the home and its significance to the community make renovation necessary.

Members of the council included Fred Mohs, Jim Burgess, Virginia Terry Boyd, Paul Brown, Paula Panczenko, state Sen. Fred Risser and Pat Smith.

Work on the 95-year-old red-brick home, designed in the Late Gothic Revival style, is expected to start some time this fall.

The project is made possible partly by the fact that Chancellor John D. Wiley and his wife, Georgia, took advantage of an opportunity to purchase a condominium in downtown Madison and will relocate there this summer. The Wileys do not intend to move back into Olin House, and the chancellor will not accept a housing allowance.

“Olin House is an historic and architectural treasure, but it requires some extensive updates to preserve it and make it a more energy-efficient and livable home,” says Wiley. “We’ve enjoyed our time here, but it’s time for us to move on to a new home and for necessary repairs to take place to safeguard this historic home.”

The home, located at 130 N. Prospect Ave. in Madison’s University Heights neighborhood, was bequeathed in 1924 by attorney John Myers Olin for the use of UW–Madison. If it is not used as the chancellor’s residence, it reverts back to the J.M. Olin Trust. Therefore, the option of selling the house is not available to the university.

Olin paid meticulous attention to the home’s construction. Its 12-inch-thick brick walls are insulated with seaweed and mineral wool, and all the wood trim that was painted white had a minimum of eight coats. He also paid particular attention to the home’s landscaping.

During its history, many famous guests have been entertained at Olin House, from aviator Charles Lindbergh to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

In addition to serving as the chancellor’s residence, the home is routinely used for many important fund-raising and recognition events, as well as for community and alumni relations functions.

McGown and council members assessed the condition of the home and its future. After considering a range of options that included abandoning Olin House and building a new chancellor’s residence, the council unanimously recommended the renovation.

“Olin House is part of the university’s history, and to allow it to continue to deteriorate would be irresponsible,” he says.

Wiley says that with his upcoming move, the timing for the renovation is right.

“Olin House will be vacant,” Wiley says. “The renovations – which have been needed for several years – will make it a much more functional home for my successor, once I decide to retire. It will also relieve that person of having to undertake this project as one of his or her first acts.”

Alan Fish, associate vice chancellor for facilities, says the planned upgrades will preserve the historic home and make it more functional for future UW–Madison leaders and their guests. Officials expect that the renovation will cost more than $1 million, with the cost financed by the University of Wisconsin Foundation. No taxpayer funds will be used in the renovation.

“Olin House is a magnificent gift,” Fish says. “The home is structurally sound, but its aging electrical, mechanical and plumbing infrastructure is in need of major upgrades. This would be the home’s first comprehensive renovation, and the changes will preserve the home for decades to come.”

Olin House, with its second and third floors primarily serving as the chancellor’s private residence, is also an important ceremonial and public event venue. Its first floor is often used for public and university functions. In 2005, the home was the site of 35 events serving more than 4,000 guests. Typically, the home is the site of between 35 and 70 major events each year.

“Because the Wileys are relocating, it offers us a chance to refurbish the home and bring it up to modern, energy-efficient standards and make it more accessible for those with disabilities,” Fish says.

Some of Olin House’s infrastructure dates to 1911, while other systems – such as the heating plant – have been jury-rigged over the years to better serve the home.

The steam-heating system is difficult to regulate and its steam lines are older than their life expectancy, air conditioning and ventilation systems work with mixed results throughout the home, and the plumbing system delivers poor water pressure. The water pipes are original, clogged with mineral deposits and corrosion, causing them to burst.

“Over time, many of the mechanical and heating systems in the home have been piecemealed together in a Rube Goldberg fashion, making them less efficient,” Fish says.

Although some of the electrical system has been upgraded, architects have recommended new branch wiring, lighting, lighting controls and replacement of security alarms, and new voice and data systems.

Storage is also difficult, with no ground-level storage for furniture, which must be removed to accommodate public events. Because of that, staff must move furniture upstairs to the chancellor’s office.

Improving access for those with disabilities will be another highlight of the project. To aid that access, the project will involve adding a residential elevator extending from the basement to the third floor. It will also make the home’s only first-floor bathroom fully accessible to those with disabilities.

Architects and contractors will perform the work, but plans also call for the expertise of university faculty and students to be used, where possible, through campus service-learning programs to make the house more efficient for future residents and guests at events, Fish says.

University officials plan to seek a formal use agreement that will allow the J.M. Olin Trust to undertake the design and renovation. The trust, in cooperation with the university architect, will oversee the work, and when it is complete, UW–Madison will accept the renovations as a gift in-kind. Throughout the two-year project, officials will also seek other in-kind gifts from contractors, vendors and others.

“The Olin Trust certainly recognizes that this house has great historical significance, but it also has a lot of obsolescence,” says Robert Stroud, a Madison attorney and J.M. Olin Trust trustee whose grandfather practiced law with John Olin. “We hope the university is able to use the house forever.”

Waiting any longer to perform the needed upgrades would be unwise, Fish says.

“In recent years, we’ve employed first aid to maintain the home, but its condition today calls for comprehensive, long-term solutions,” Fish says. “Refurbishing the home is really a question of good stewardship of a university and community asset.”