Muir Knoll facelift to build its storyteller’s tradition
Thanks to gifts, including one from a foundation named for one of Wisconsin’s great storytellers, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s scenic Muir Knoll will revive its historic tradition as “Story-Teller’s Hill.”
The Robert E. Gard Foundation, in partnership with other private funders, is providing resources for a renovation of Muir Knoll, the tree-shaded knob of land on the northern edge of Bascom Hill overlooking Lake Mendota.
The project’s centerpiece will be the Robert E. Gard Storyteller’s Circle, a gathering spot named after one of Wisconsin’s prolific writers and storytellers.
The project will be the focus of an informational meeting at which designers will discuss their concept for the Muir Knoll and answer questions at 5 p.m. on Monday, April 20, in Room 260 in Bascom Hall, 500 Lincoln Drive.
Daniel Einstein, Lakeshore Nature Preserve program manager, says the project will involve removal of the old concrete aggregate benches and terrace now perched at the brow of the hill and replacing them with the circular gathering spot. A stone seating wall inscribed with some of Gard’s notable quotations will enclose the circle.
“This place has a long tradition of being a gathering and storytelling place, so this project is really in step with its history and with Gard’s legacy,” Einstein says.
The project is set to begin in late summer or early fall.
In the 1910s, the site was the location of an open-air theater. It was the gathering place for university summer-session meetings on folklore led by Charles E. Brown, an archaeologist and the State Historical Society’s museum director. He shared vivid stories of local Native American people and early European-American settlers.
It is fitting that Gard’s name will be part of the $167,000 project, given his prodigious ability to craft and capture stories. In the years after Gard joined the UW–Madison faculty and later UW-Extension, Gard established the Wisconsin Idea Theater Conference, the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association and established the nationally known Rhinelander School of the Arts.
Maryo Gard Ewell, Gard’s daughter, says the project fits perfectly with Gard’s love for Wisconsin, the university and its landscape.
“The Muir Knoll project would absolutely thrill my dad,” she says. “It’s a little parcel of land that embodies the Wisconsin Idea. And the Wisconsin Idea was his total passion. On that hill is a marriage of the visual soul of the university, conversation, inquiry, the pursuit of ideas and the Wisconsin landscape.”
Gard, who died in 1992 at the age of 82, authored numerous books, many that focused on Wisconsin life and culture such as “Coming Home to Wisconsin,” “Down in the Valleys: Wisconsin Back Country Lore and Humor” and “My Land, My Wisconsin: The Epic Story of the Wisconsin Farm and Farm Family from Settlement Days to the Present.”
Gard also wrote for the stage, authoring or co-authoring plays including “Calumet Story,” “Hodag: A New Musical” and “The Freedom: A Wisconsin Comedy in Three Acts.”
After working as a Fulbright Research Scholar in Finland in 1959, Gard was the recipient of the gold medal of the Finnish National Theater for his work with Finnish playwrights, the Medal of the University of Helsinki and the Jubilee Medal of the nation of Finland.
As part of the project, Einstein says a concrete reservoir just east of the scenic overlook will be removed and the largely untended area will be re-landscaped to provide a new grass terrace and native plants will be added. The reservoir once served the nearby Hydraulics Laboratory — now called the Water Science and Engineering Laboratory — but has not been used in years.