New Tenney Park shelter nears completion

Tenney-Lapham is one of Madison’s most diverse and historic neighborhoods; but with history comes age, and with age, comes decay.

A victim of that decay was the 53-year-old park shelter in Tenney Park, a shelter that has served as a social center for Tenney-Lapham neighborhood residents and various Madison groups for years.

“It was falling apart,” said Mary Lang Sollinger, founder and chair of the Tenney Park Shelter Group, a group formed four years ago to get a conversation started within the community about what could be done to improve the shelter.

 Made up of Tenney-Lapham residents, members of city government and surrounding Eastside neighborhood residents, the group’s first task was to find out who used the shelter and for what.

For years, Tenney Park and the park shelter have been a popular neighborhood hang out; and come winter, the park's biggest citywide claim to fame is its lagoon-turned-skating rink. 

The lagoon has served as a proud symbol of Madison’s parks and winter sports, except for the decrepit brown shelter that sat at its shore as a warming lodge for skaters. The neighborhood has long known the shelter, which also held many group gatherings, was in need of a serious makeover.

So when the Tenney Park Shelter Group began investigating the shelter’s use in the community, three years of city records showed that anywhere from 60 to 90 different groups from across Madison rented the shelter for private events each year.

Another local gathering spot, the Gates of Heaven Church about a mile down the road, was also busy with groups and events booked almost every weekend from May to October. This left the area with few gathering spaces for meetings and groups.

With high local interest in using the shelter as a meeting place, the Shelter Group’s findings showed a serious need for a new, clean and presentable place for Madison residents to gather year round.

So when it came time to design plans for the shelter, the group decided the shelter should not only serve as an open air space and warming house for skaters, but also as an indoor meeting place for community groups.

The original plan for the space, approved internally early on by the Shelter Group, was given a score of 2.5 out of 10 by the Madison Urban Design Commission, a group of advisors who oversee the beginning stages of all city building projects.

“We had to get past our anger and frustration and remember that we were volunteers,” Sollinger said. “We decided to buckle down and start all over again.”Final design concept for the John Wall Family Pavilion at Tenney Park. Photo credit: TLNA websiteFinal design concept for the John Wall Family Pavilion at Tenney Park. Photo credit: TLNA website

Months later, a completely redesigned plan created by Plunkett Raysich Architects that attempted to adhere to the park’s prairie-like scenery was back on the Commission’s table.

This time, however, the design received a 10 out of 10.

“It was pretty awesome, they rarely give tens,” Sollinger said.

With a high score from the Urban Design Commission, the plan made its way through the Madison Park Commission, Landmarks Commission and City Council with little resistance.

Thanks to both city funding and private donations, the $1 million project broke ground last spring and is on pace to finish as scheduled in mid-November.

To make the shelter a reality, donations from community members raised over half of the funds for the shelter.

One such private donation, a $250,000 gift from John Wall, the father of a local property manager, resulted in the space being named the John Wall Family Pavilion at Tenney Park.

“All of the private fundraising by the Shelter Group allowed for a really fantastic project,” Bridget Maniaci, District 2 Alder where Tenney Park is located said. “If there is a private interest in helping to facilitate the work on public infrastructure it really helps the whole project.”

As the shelter nears completion, the mood around the neighborhood is one of excitement and eagerness as people have followed this project from its start.

“It’s looking really great,” remarked John Baggot, a Tenney-Lapham resident who stared at the structure from afar.

Community members aren’t the only Madison residents excited about the shelter. Sollinger said around 32,000 cars drive past the construction site every day while on East Johnson Street, and that it’s creating a lot of buzz.

With the opening date nearing, Sollinger said she has already had people calling to reserve the space. While rates for renting the space have yet to be set, she assured the prices would remain affordable.

The new shelter plans to officially open its doors to the public on December 3, but will also host a fundraising gala December 1 to raise money for a new Tenney Park playground. Beth Heiden, an Olympic gold medalist skater who first raced competitively on the Tenney Lagoon ice rink, will be the event’s special guest.

When asked what the new shelter will mean for the community, Sollinger said she expected the shelter will get a lot more use.

“I feel very strongly about communities coming together. I’m a strong believer in neighborhoods, and I’m a strong believer in trusting neighbors,” Sollinger said. “You have to make it look like you care. If you show respect for your community, [the city] will give respect back. We’ve got a great city…and we’ve got to keep it that way.”


 Story updated for minor corrections on November 3, 2011.