FPL’s Historic Home

FPL penny postcard

FPL as depicted on a mid-century penny postcard.

Between 1931 and 1932, a new home for FPL was designed and built about a mile west from its first long-term home on the University of Wisconsin (UW) campus. On a site situated adjacent to UW, in the middle of a corn field, the Chicago architectural firm of Holabird and Root planned a design for the state-of-the-art laboratory.

According to A History of the Architecture of the USDA Forest Service, Building One on the FPL campus “typifies the American Perpendicular or Modernistic phase of the Art Deco style as it was applied to commercial design.” The building is a stand-alone structure of steel and concrete and has a U-shaped plan.

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The main entrance faces east, seen here in the gloaming with cars parked along Gifford Pinchot Drive.

The exterior is covered with “smoothly dressed white Indiana limestone blocks. The windows are massed in groupings of four: one-over-one, double-hung sashes with flat surrounds. Cypress-wood fins running the height of the vertical faces flank each window and add a decorative and functional detail. The fins shade the glass in the windows during the heat of the day and reduce solar gain. Atop the vertical mass is a set-back “penthouse” housing the building’s mechanical systems. The roof is flat, with a plain parapet, and there is no cornice decoration. This building style is unique.”

The Forest Service’s architectural historians weren’t the only ones to sense the building’s unique design. Shortly before construction was completed, a Wisconsin State Journal reporter described the building as “Probably the strangest and most impressive site in Madison is at its best right now — the new Forest Products Laboratory building seen from the lake drive near the willows at twilight: The massive, glass-fronted marble cubist palace, suave and modern as a futuristic dream, rising from a field of waving corn and black earth, framed in softly blowing trees against a sunset-tinted sky, and rescued from the realm of the unreal by the chirp of crickets and the twittering of birds.”

Wow. They don’t write it like that any more. And we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. FPL’s Building One was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.