The battle over the height of buildings in downtown Madison was sparked 100 years go when the Gay Building was erected on the capitol square. The nine-story structure, now known as the Churchill Building, opened in 1915.
It was the project of Leonard Gay, described as “a leading Madison real estate developer, building erector, and civic leader” by the Wisconsin State Journal at the time of his death in 1934. He announced construction in 1911 and when finished, the eponymous building reached 134 feet. The new state capitol was completed two years later and became the tallest building in the city (which it still is), measuring 234.4 feet from the ground floor to the tip the statue atop the dome.
The parcel that Gay purchased next to Grace Episcopal Church was occupied by three modest two-story buildings of frame construction. He hired James R. Law to design the new building, among the earliest projects for the architect. By the 1920s the practice was known as Law, Law & Potter and became the premiere architectural firm in the city.
Not long before work started on the Gay Building the noted city planner John Nolen recommended that height limits be established on the square. It took several years for the state legislature to pass a law (in 1921) that limited building heights to 90 feet in the vicinity of the capitol. That law and a similar city ordinance were struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court two years later which gave an opening for construction of another tall building—the 11-story Belmont Hotel (now the YWCA Building) on N. Pinckney Street. The Belmont spurred a second state law in 1923 limiting buildings to 100 feet that was upheld by the court.
In 1966 the city passed a Capitol View Preservation Ordinance that limits buildings within a mile of the capitol to the base of the columns beneath the dome r about 180 feet. Building heights are further restricted east of the square by Federal Aviation Administration rules that limit structures to roughly 160 feet within three miles of the boundaries of the Dane County Regional Airport.
Gay’s high-rise building on Carroll Street was one of many successful business ventures for the developer. That was not the case for his Lake Forest project on the southern banks of Lake Wingra, the notorious “Lost City.” Platted in 1915, the development had failed by 1922 and the property became part of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
Upon Leonard Gay’s passing the State Journal noted that he was responsible for “the first of Madison’s tall office structures.” Nonetheless, his name disappeared from the high-rise in the 1970s when it was purchased and renovated by Hovde Properties and redubbed the Churchill Building.