Lake View Hill Park surrounds historic site

Posted by Samantha Haas on Thursday, December 21st, 2017 at 1:07pm.

Lake View Hill Park: the name says it all. Overlooking Lake Mendota on the highest point on Madison's north side, it has been a place of reflection, recreation, and even healing.

Now a 27-acre conservancy that surrounds the Dane County Human Services building along Northport Drive, you are likely to find people walking their dogs, hiking, or watching wildlife through the wooded trails. And on the great lawn you can usually see a trio of cranes or, when it snows, kids sledding.

But there's more than meets the eye on this piece of land. Dane County Parks installed several historical displays throughout the park to help explain its storied past, which includes remnants of a 20th century sanatorium all the way back to boulders from glaciers that retreated 12,000 years ago.

It's also said that naturalist John Muir likely mentioned the hill in the last paragraph of his 1913 memoir, "The Story of My Boyhood and Youth," when he wrote: "From the top of a hill on the north side of Lake Mendota I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful university grounds and buildings where I had spent so many hungry and happy and hopeful days."

The hill had been used for farming and grazing until Dane County selected it as the site to build its tuberculosis sanatorium. In 1930, the Lake View Sanatorium started treating patients, who benefitted from the natural setting where they got exercise, sunshine, and fresh air on the walking trails.

A few years later, the adjacent Dormitory for Help was built for nurse and staff housing, tunnels connected the buildings, and a water tower was erected. 

After the sanatorium closed in 1966 and Dane County Human Services moved in, interest in a county park grew. A local family also donated more land for a park, and in 2007 it was rezoned as a conservancy. That's also when the Friends of the Lake View Hill Park, Inc. nonprofit formed.

"You can catch sight of landmarks such as the foundation to the sanatorium's old pig farm, which with gardens supplemented the patients' diet," according to a Northside News article by Anita Weier of Friends of Lake View Hill Park.

The group holds programs and activities that provide education, restoration, preservation, and development of cultural and natural resources representing the county's heritage.

For example, volunteers have been removing invasive species like garlic mustard and buckthorn and planting native flower seeds and milkweed plants to attract butterflies.

They've also held community events, like an herb walk and bird count through the woods, where this year they spotted an owl. Raptors, like this soaring hawk, are common throughout the park.

And later in the year near the newly restored fountain they held yoga on the hill and a fall equinox event featuring the Madison Drum Circle.

In 2016, a new water tower was built and the dormitory was razed except for the veranda, which is being turned into a memorial and will feature historical plaques. Later that year, the unused tunnels were converted to an artificial bat cave.

"It will be a fitting thing if the tunnel can attract hibernating bats to help save this population of productive mammals. We all know this hill to be an invigorating and enjoyable asset to our beautiful part of Madison. It helped to save a lot of lives many decades ago. Perhaps it can happen again," according to a Northside News article by Dan Tortorice of Friends of Lake View Hill Park.

This year the Friends group has been especially busy painting, from the dormitory veranda to the old water tower pump house which is now their tool shed.


1913: Hill views likely referenced in John Muir's memoir
1929: County selected site for its tuberculosis sanatorium
1930: Site opened as Lake View Sanatorium
1934: Dormitory for Help opened for staff housing
1938: Water tower built
1939: Ornamental cement-lined creek, paved path led to Sputum Pond
1958: Fourth floor of sanatorium converted to Dane County General Hospital
1966: Sanatorium closed and property transferred to Dane County Health and Human Services
1984: County stopped actively using the dormitory
1991: Surrounding site established as a Dane County Park
1993: Sanatorium property listed in the National Register of Historic Places
2004: Lake View Hill designated a recreation park
2005: Esch family donated 2.34 acres of neighboring property
2007: Park rezoned to conservancy zoning; Friends of Lake View Hill Park, Inc. formed as nonprofit
2009: Lake View Hill Park master plan showed ecological, cultural significance in 27-acre site
2015: Water tower demolished
2016: New water tower built; Dormitory razed except for veranda; Artificial bat cave opened
2017: Fountain restored; Rain gardens planted; Veranda repaired and repainted; Pump house repainted and converted to Friends tool shed

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