Madison architect Frank Riley known for Colonial Revival homes in University Heights

Posted by Samantha Haas on Monday, January 7th, 2019 at 3:46pm.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) gets a lot of attention -- and deservedly so -- for the mid-century modern homes and buildings he's designed in the Madison area. But less than 8 years after he attended civil engineering classes at UW-Madison, so did another "Frank" who would also become a prominent 20th century architect in a much different style.

Perhaps best known for designing what is now the Governor's Mansion and several other Period Revival homes in Maple Bluff, Frank Morris Riley (1875-1949) helped shape the look and feel of many of Madison's premier neighborhoods, including University Heights, Nakoma, Shorewood Hills, and along Sherman Avenue and Wingra Park. He also designed the Brittingham House in the Highlands, which is now the official residence of the UW President.

Some of his landmark nonresidential designs include the Maple Bluff Country Clubhouse, Security State Bank, and (pictured below from left) Madison Club, Madison East High School, and First Church of Christ, Scientist. 

Riley transferred from UW in 1897 to study architecture at MIT in Boston, where he worked for some of the city's best architectural firms, and later worked in Italy and Germany. He designed his parents' house, built in 1908 at 2930 Lakeland Ave., Madison (pictured below), where he also later lived. That Colonial Revival style would become one of his most sought-after commissions upon his return to Madison at the start of World War I, which "coincided with the beginning of the period in which the city's economic and social elite were starting to abandon the increasingly congested downtown neighborhoods ... for other areas, most of which were new suburbs then being developed on the outskirts of the city," according to his biography.

In the decades that followed, he would design about 100 residential homes throughout Madison, as well as a number of fraternities and sororities on Langdon Street. Styles ranged from Tudor Revival and Mediterranean Revival to French Provincial and Swiss Chalet, but most were in the Colonial or Georgian Revival style -- his favorite. Lucien S. Hanks, one of Riley's former apprentice architects, described the style in a 1965 Wisconsin State Journal article as "the simple, dignified, classical style developed in the 18th century England during the reign of three King Georges." Some of Riley's designs (pictured below from left to right) include French Provincial, Georgian Revival, Tudor Revival. 

Katherine Rankin, Madison's preservation planner from 1979-2009, wrote that Riley was the "finest practitioner of the Colonial Revival style (and) brought to his designs East Coast sophistication and an extensive knowledge of the regional variations of the style." Many of these homes, which stand out by their symmetrical front and evenly spaced windows on either side, are eligible for the National/State Register for what she called "excellent interior and exterior details and imposing quality."

About a dozen of Riley's homes can be found in the University Heights historic district, one of Madison's most elite and architecturally significant suburbs. About a third of its single-family homes were first occupied by UW-Madison staff, and it continues to attract "owners who have appreciated the heritage that they found in the Heights and who have been willing and able to maintain their houses as in times past," according to the National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form.

One such family is the Gaards, who have owned and respectfully updated their hilltop Riley home in the Heights for over 20 years. Also an architect, Jeff Gaard was familiar with the name Frank Riley when the ad for the house appeared in the newspaper in the 1990s. Jeff had lived in the Doty School Condos before he married his wife, Sue, and once they started their family it was time for a larger yet still modest living space. The Gaards found that in what is called the Henry L. Metz home, built in 1923 at 1722 Summit Ave., and they enjoy the walkable neighborhood that has coffee shops and is close to schools, downtown, and the west side.

"Riley was not an innovator," Jeff said, "but he understood proportions and what made them work." That skill is definitely on display in his stunning three-bay brick Georgian Revival home with beautiful French doors, high ceilings, and plenty of natural light.

Even though the 3 bedroom/1.5 bathroom 2,120-square-foot house has undergone several major improvements, it still retains its original charm, including the arched doorways, curved staircase, wood burning fireplace, various built-ins, and the laundry chute (which the family has also creatively used as a telecom system).

The wood floors are oak downstairs, birch upstairs, and maple in the kitchen -- which also features a new double-hung window with Marvin clad wood replacements.

The Gaards had the original light fixtures refurbished and installed in the dining room wall.

In the same dimensions as the living room downstairs is the upstairs master bedroom, which still contains the original Appalachian fireplace. They have also painted all of the bedrooms.

Other major improvements include rebuilding the east and west chimneys (the home's defining feature) to match the historic detailing. They salvaged the brick for their garage, first floor screen porch, and second floor deck addition in the early 2000s. During that time they removed the steep driveway so the new garage is now at basement-level, but still retains the same footprint. All exterior work was reviewed and approved by the Madison Landmarks Commission and has been properly documented with the City of Madison, and some improvements qualified for State of Wisconsin Historic Tax Credits.

"We spend about six months of the year in the screened porch," Jeff said. His daughter, whose sunny bedroom walks out to the upstairs deck, enjoys the elevated view. You can even hear the crowd at Camp Randall Stadium, so you know just when to tune into the football game.

The Gaards also had extensive backyard landscaping done, as well as retaining walls on both sides of the driveway. One of the most captivating aspects of the front of the house is the circular landings as part of the new entry steps.

According to the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, which hosts historic architecture tours throughout the summer (including in the Heights), Riley is considered by many to be Madison's most important architect in determining how the city looks.

After Riley's death in 1949, the Wisconsin State Journal wrote, "He not only studded the Madison scene with beautiful homes, but he set a standard which had a strong influence on other designers and builders. He had an eye for detail and a sense of proportion and balance. He insisted his houses should have dignity, charm, and look 'lived in.' His contribution to Madison's reputation as a city of beautiful homes was an important one."

To learn more about this property and the architect, contact our team today.

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