The house at 1645 Linden Drive is unassuming. White paint has worn away from its aged wood siding, and ivy has overgrown its nameplate. After a series of renovations, it’s now a mishmash of architecture, dwarfed by modern red brick giants nearby. Its official university name is simply its address.
But the building, known to many as Science House, is the elder resident of its campus neighborhood. Just shy of 150 years old, it was once home to grand people and grand ideas. And it’s an intriguing link between the origins of the UW–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), ghost lore, a statehouse ravaged by fire, an artist, and outer space.
Formerly known as the Farm Superintendent’s House, UW Experimental Farm Residence, and the Artist-in-Residence House, Science House will be demolished in July to make way for a multimillion dollar update to Babcock Hall, including a renovation of the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant and a three-story addition for the Center for Dairy Research. Despite its age, the building is not eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because of past remodeling projects and a relocation.
“Unfortunately, the ability of the building to tell its story was so compromised that it no longer met the eligibility criteria set by the National Park Service,” says Daniel Einstein, historic and cultural resources manager at the UW–Madison Division of Facilities Planning and Management.
When Science House was built in 1868, the University of Wisconsin (now UW–Madison) had only three instructional buildings: North, South, and University (now Bascom) Halls. The Morrill Land-Grant Act had passed in 1862, and UW, Ripon College, and Lawrence University all competed to be the state’s land-grant institution. Tipping the scales in Madison’s favor was a pledge by Dane County to purchase 200 acres of land for an experimental farm. It would be the seed for the College of Agriculture, now CALS. The first two buildings on the farm were a barn (now the Horse Barn at 520 Elm Drive) and a farmhouse (now Science House).
Though it may seem abundantly ordinary at first glance, Science House was designed by prominent Madison architect August Kutzbock. It was perhaps the final project of the German immigrant’s life and career in precipitous decline. He had designed several including Gates of Heaven Synagogue and the Pierce House (now Mansion Hill Inn). A decade before the university farmhouse project, he was chosen as the architect for Wisconsin’s , the second built in Madison. Nearing the final stages of construction, he sparred with politicians over the size and design of the Capitol’s dome. Kutzbock resigned from the project and moved to California for a fresh start, where he fell seriously ill.
He returned to Madison in 1867 and had difficulty finding work. Accustomed to designing grander buildings, Kutzbock accepted a modest $50 commission to draw up the architectural plans for Science House. Before construction was complete, he drowned himself in the waters of Lake Mendota off Picnic Point. Adherents of the paranormal say an occasional mist drifting from the point towards downtown Madison is Kutzbock’s spirit. The third Capitol — — would ultimately perish in a fire in 1904, necessitating the construction of today’s iconic statehouse.
Science House was originally a farmhouse, situated just east of the Horse Barn, where, at the time, it housed the experimental farm’s superintendent and laborers. When William Arnon (W.A.) Henry was hired by the university as an agriculture professor in 1880, he rented the house for $200 per year. The College of Agriculture was founded in 1889 with Henry (the namesake for historic Henry Mall) as its first dean. At his direction in 1901, Science House was moved a short distance to a new lot at 438 Farm Place, where it stands today, only now with a Linden Drive address.
After the move, George Colvin (G.C.) Humphrey, longtime chair of the animal husbandry department, took occupancy until his retirement in 1942, often welcoming Farm and Industry Short Course students to his home for social events. Humphrey was part of the team of scientists that conducted the groundbreaking “single-grain experiment” from 1907 to 1911, determining that cows were healthier when they ate only corn instead of wheat, oats, or a combination of the three. Their work led to the development of the field of nutritional science.
Other various professors and units used Science House until 1962. The north side of the house was then remodeled to provide a studio for UW artist-in-residence Aaron Bohrod. False “half-timbering” trim was added to match the Tudor Revival architectural style of the Stock Pavilion next door. A steady flow of science-oriented occupants used the building after Bohrod’s retirement, including personnel from landscape architecture from 1974 to 1981, and food science from 1982 to 1991. The building was again renovated in 1993 to house the Center for Environmental Awareness.
The building became known as Science House around 1998 when it welcomed the Rapid-cycling Brassica Collection (RCBC) and Wisconsin Fast Plants, started in the 1980s by plant pathology emeritus professor Paul H. Williams, his wife, Coe, and Jane Scharer. Needing research tools for improving disease-resistance in vegetables, Williams bred “rapid-cycling” Brassica rapa plants to drastically shorten their life cycles. With many years of work, he reduced their life cycle from six months to just five weeks. Five weeks was short enough to fit into a school lesson plan — or a space mission.
Fast Plants were first used in space research on the Russian space station Mir. NASA then took the plants on space shuttle Columbia in 1997, where they were the first plants to produce viable offspring in space. Then they went to the International Space Station, where they are still used in research. More than 75,000 teachers and 5 million children around the world experiment with Fast Plants in their schools each year. The program moved to Russell Laboratories when Science House was vacated in 2016.
The Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning was also a recent occupant, as was Place-based Opportunities for Sustainable Outcomes and High-hopes (POSOH), a CALS-led project funded by a $4.7 million USDA-NIFA grant to help prepare Native American students for bioenergy and sustainability-related studies and careers.
“We wanted to use the building as a science outreach center on campus for a variety of programs,” says Dan Lauffer, a longtime RCBC and Fast Plants employee. “We ran a hands-on Saturday Science Program for families and hosted meetings for the Madison Aquatic Gardening Club and Friends of the Lakeshore Preserve.”
Although this building with many names comes down this summer, the contributions of its tenants to science, agriculture, and community will always stand as part of the UW legacy.