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History of Machinery Row

Excerpt taken from

At the tail end of the Nineteenth Century, the rise of industrialization had turned the sale and manufacture of farm implements into a boom business. During this time, implement dealers began to cluster in Madison. This central location enabled them to service a region that included not only Wisconsin, but also neighboring states. By 1902, there were over thirty sales offices, showrooms, and warehouses. The largest ones put up their own buildings adjacent to the railroad, particularly in the 500 to 700 blocks of Williamson Street, an area that came to be known as “Implement Row,” or “Machinery Row.” Machinery Row, one of the most prominent of these buildings, is actually a series of buildings that were constructed specifically as implement houses between 1898 and 1902. 

To best understand the history of Machinery Row, it is essential to take a brief look at the history of Madison as well. The development of the railroads and changes in manufacturing technology and in marketing techniques preceded the development of the Machinery Row building and the area in which it was located. Early in Madison’s history the 1858 “Business Advertiser” bemoaned the fact that Madison’s manufacturing industries were either nonexistent of on a “scale far too limited for the wants and necessities of both present and future” populations, which included agricultural implements. By 1866, the City Directory reported that agricultural implement shipments from Madison had reached over 70,000 pounds eastward and 2.6 million pounds westward. 

From its small beginnings, Madison was recognized for its central location and it developed into a major distribution center for agricultural implements. The large manufacturers found it more profitable to have branch locations from which their stock could be supplied without delay, rather than shipping directly from their factories. Fortunately for Madison, railroad lines reaching in nine directions tied it to the prosperous communities and fertile farmlands of Wisconsin, Iowa, and northern Illinois. 

An “Implement Row” area of Madison naturally developed around the East Madison railroad depots, the core of which was roughly bounded by Lake Monona, East Washington Avenue, South Blair Street, and South Livingston Street. A key parcel in this district was the Daggett and Gill lake property, which contained old frame buildings used as tobacco warehouses, ice houses, and produce storage. By 1888, they had converted their ice buildings and were renting space to implement dealers. In 1889, the Advance Thresher Com. became a long term resident of the site. In the Sept 19,1898 Wisconsin State Journal, it was reported that though few Madisonians knew of the industrial Implement Row district, its two blocks contained fifteen businesses which combined to do over a million dollars a year in business. 

Within a few years, the Daggett-Gill property was being referred to as “Machinery Row” and business was booming. By 1903, Madison had thirty implement companies trading in two million dollars' worth of business, a doubling in a little over six years. During this time, it seemed there was never enough space available for these businesses. For example, when the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company opened a local branch in 1895, it was unable to find a suitable building. They finally built their own in 1898 with the latest in machinery handling equipment; before long; the McCormick building was considered the “King of Implement Row.” 

In response to the demand for space, The Estate of Timothy Brown purchased the Daggett-Gill property in 1898. Listed in 1902 as Madison’s second-largest taxpayer, the Brown Estate was built on the banking/utility fortune of Timothy Brown and managed by his two sons, Frank and Frederick. The Browns immediately began to replace the wooden structures with substantial brick buildings. The significance of their improvements to Machinery Row was made clear in 1898 by the railroad’s motivation to raise and improve the spur track that ran along the back of the property. In fact, the original section of Machinery Row occupied by Advance Thresher was described in 1899 as a “magnificent building…which is the first and most complete of any implement branch house in the country.” 

It is interesting to note that even though Machinery Row was originally designed and built as an implement house, it was never used exclusively for that purpose. While the main section (601-611) was used by implement businesses up until 1954 when Allis-Chalmers vacated the building, the other rental units housed a wide variety of tenants. Most were distributors, factories, and warehouses tied to the railroad. These businesses included, at least through the 1930’s, fruits and produce, building materials, plumbing and heating, engines and machines, tools, printing, electrical supplies, chemicals, paint, candy factories, and even ladies’ underwear. 

The Machinery Row Building was designed in a late commercial Romanesque Revival Style by the prominent architectural firm Conover and Porter. The firm was formed in 1887 and dissolved in 1899, shortly after the first sections of Machinery Row were built. After the dissolution of the firm, Lew F. Porter supervised the remaining work on the building. During their partnership, Conover and Porter constructed three jails, thirty schoolhouses, six churches, eight banks, three large hotels, and one hundred residences. Prominent among these were the old UW boathouse, the UW-Madison’s Old Red Gym, the Senate Tavern, the Ag Dean’s residence at 10 Babcock Drive, and the Brown House at 121 E. Gilman. The firm was a training ground for young architects, including Louise Clause, John Flad, Alvin Small, and Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Machinery Row was built piecemeal, with brick buildings gradually replacing the older frame ones. 601-607 Williamson was finished in 1898, 621-623 in 1899, 613-615 in 1901, 625-627 by August 1902, and 609-611 some time after August 1902. The center of the row at 617-619 Williamson remained frame until as late as July 1912, when a fire struck the building that attracted a crowd of thousands. After an estimated $12,000 worth of damage, new buildings were erected in replacement, finally completing Machinery Row.