Skip to content

Wright On Madison-Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace.

Saunter Saturday

WHAT: Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright designed Monona Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. Designed in 1938, this building came to fruition in 1997. The one-hour tour highlights the design elements, history of the site, the reason that this building took so long to complete, and how this building is being utilized by the community.


Monona Terrace and the Wisconsin Capitol Building

WHY VISIT – I love Frank Lloyd Wright and Madison, Wisconsin. In particular, I love organic architecture, concepts and home styles. Although I have visited buildings that were not homes, this is the first single largest FLW building that I have been able to set foot in. This 352,610 square foot, multi-level building is on 4.4 acres and is a great example of civic use, urbanism and community strengthening for public use.

WHO – This tour will appeal to FLW enthusiasts, architecture buffs and anyone interested in civics buildings built by a master architect. Or, if you want a fantastic lunch, take in a concert, some yoga, see an art exhibit, or find a place to just sit atop the rooftop garden and watch the water shimmer(or snow,) this is your stop.

What does Madison Wisconsin have to do with Frank Lloyd Wright?

Frank Lloyd Wright resided in Madison, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin Madison for a period of time. I do believe that his influential youth in a city of freethinkers greatly influenced his life, as it has mine. Wright designed buildings in Madison during each decade of his career. “If one had to summarize a city for his career, this would be it.” [1]


Monona Terrace view of the Capitol. One of three fountains built to represent Earth, Sun and the Moon.

If you have ever driven, walked, boated or biked along the Madison Lakeshore after 1997, you can not miss this building.


Five levels of public space, linking the Capitol Building with the lakeshore. Bike paths run along side the building and the lake.


The parking lot is “Guggenheim-esque” Drawn years before he created The Guggenheim Museum.


Close up view of Monona Terrace parking.

There are several entrances into Monona Terrace.  Walking the hallways before the tour, I was able to take in a special art exhibit entitled “Madison – An American Capital City by Zane Williams”.


Monona Terrace Art near entrance

THE TOUR– Begins and ends at the well-appointed gift shop with a trained docent.


The tour begins in the gift shop that is well appointed FLW items.

As we gathered, our group of six were given a brief introduction to the history of Madison Wisconsin and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in Madison and the world at large. Here are __ of my highlights.


1. ART

Art is found throughout the interior and exterior of Monona Terrace.  Madison has  had a keep it weird theme before keep it weird was a thing.


The art at Monona Terrace had me at hello

I loved the art as the architecture itself, found in the curves, subtle lighting and soft colors.


Stairway with curves



Especially love nature in spaces


Curves, shapes and reflections

We learned that architectural photographer Pedro E. Guerrero created the photographic artworks over the last 20 years of FLW’s life.   Since I especially love organic architecture, I was captivated by this pictorial on a curved wall. The photos are of Frank Lloyd Wright explaining organic architecture with his hands.


Organic Architecture explained in pictorial by Master Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright



Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet. –Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   Sometimes when I take a tour, I hear blah-blah-blah. This tour we learned the timeline of this project and why this building took so many years to come to fruition. There were so many methods to learn that it kept things interesting, short and fast.


Monona Terrace and the timeline of this building.

Since the early 1900’s, this site from the lake to the Capitol was meant to be part of the city buildings. It is said that when the people of Madison awarded Frank Lloyd Wright this commission, this meant more to him than any other award that he had received.  Mr. Wright felt that the city was turning it’s back on the lake.  Standing at the Capitol,  he designed the Center so that one is able to look out over the lake, the view drawing you towards this place with open arms. And in reverse, from the lakeshore, you are able to view the Capitol.

Several design elements were meant to echo the rotunda on the Capitol building. Frank Lloyd Wright most certainly was a visionary as he practiced Anti-classical architecture. Technically translated to me, FLW reduced capitol rotunda to basic geometry and repeated patterns. Curvilinear view.


Must have been “far-out” in 1938 Photo of design taken at Monona Terrace [2]

However, the building was expensive and the citizens voted, Wright losing by one vote. WWII sidelined this building and it was voted down again and again over the next several decades.  Pitting citizens and newspapers against each other.

 During the tour, there were stories, exhibits, models, films and photographs of the design that helped me conceptualize the struggle from the 1938 concept to the building of Monona Terrace. A courthouse, city hall, rail station, jail and marina were included in the original plans.

In the 1990’s, MadisonMayor Paul Slogin helped to revive this referendum after visiting Japan where Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings were celebrated in such esteem. The Mayor and many people felt that this Wisconsin Architect should have his place in Madison history.  From 1990 the struggle to make this project happen was once again repeated.

monona basement building design

Model of Monona Terrace

 Finally, in 1994, the $67.1 dollar building began.


The wedding between the city and beautiful Lake Monona.


The interior was re-designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice and Taliesin Architect, Tony Putnam.  Many details true to Frank Lloyd Wright design are noted throughout the interior.   Details such as; the carpets, lighting, concrete floors, repetitive patterns to built in furniture have been incorporated in to this building.

There are two auditoriums.


The entry into the auditorium features the compression-expansion concept.

Entering into this large space through the compressed hallway, I noticed that the signature cherokee-red color is used as well as repeat shapes in the columns.    In the calendar of events for September, 29th 2016,  A presentation will be given by Michael Lilek, Curator Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes, Milwaukee that is free and open to the public.


Monona Terrace Auditorium

Weddings are an example of events held in this light filled room overlooking beautiful Lake Monona.


Monona Terrace getting wedding ready!

A large exhibition area. This room is so large that Semi-trucks are able to drive through it. Madison’s own Trek Bicycle Company had just rolled out their new bike lines here in a top-secret fashion, just prior to my visit.


HUGE exhibition room on the lower level.


Although there are a few ways to get to the rooftop, I loved walking up this cool stairway.


Catching a glimpse of what lies ahead


Getting closer to the top, you begin to see the details Monona Terrace



The walkway look like waves on the lake. Serious details!

You can really see the waves and the city when you turn around.


Turning around, one can see the detail of the waves



Saving the best for last, I absolutely loved the rooftop. I could see myself visiting this spot for years.  I found it to be like a secret garden in contrast to the cement of the exterior. As you walk onto the rooftop, you are aware in a city but you are also connected to the natural surroundings.


Glimpse of Monona Terrace Rooftop

7 distinct pieces of artwork will be on display until November 2016


This is no ordinary space Rooftop at Monona Terrace.


The Cafe with a view and GREAT food!

From this vantage point you can see design elements up close and personal.  I thought certain elements that were just weird to me in design concept looked amazing in practice.  Clearly, I am no visionary.


Sky light on Monona Terrace

And then there are the panoramic views.


View from the Cafe on Monona Terrace


The Cantilevered roof ramps over 90 “ out into Lake Monona


Views of both architecture and the gorgeous lakes

And there are city views with educational signs about the city and it’s history.  City meets lake.


Views of Madison from Monona Terrace

And of course, my favorite view. On this day, they were getting ready to set up for a concert.


My favorite view from Monona Terrace. Lady Forward.

What a great tour and how nice of that beautiful weather to cooperate with my visit.  WRIGHT ON

MEGastars 5 ***** star tour.


  1. This is Wisconsin. The Monona Terrace is subject to weather and has seasonal hours. Garden patio is closed during the winter months.
  2. Also closed on certain days.  DO visit the website for reference prior to your visit.
  3. The website for this site is fantastic and outlines anything that you will need to know about your visit. Monona Terrace Tour Information
  4. Yes, one may self-tour with a brochure. This building is open to the public.
  5. No reservations are necessary for groups less than 10 people.
  6. DO Eat on the terrace. A menu to match a foodie city.  The Lake Vista Cafe is also open seasonally.  See the above website for details.
  7. Do Visit my favorite city, Madison Wisconsin.


  1. Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide-Thomas A. Heinz
  2. This is my photo of the sketch.  However, all photos from the Monona Terrace website are to be used for educational, tourism and promotion only.
2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Awesome tips! Thanks! 🙂


    September 17, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: