Madison’s Lost City

I am on a mission to dig deep into my family’s real estate history. The size and scope of the mark my family made on Madison as you see it today is not your average mark. We’re talking vision upon vision that came to fruition as some of Madison’s most popular and prestigious residential neighborhoods. There are the developments that I am most familiar with such as Shorewood Hills, Sunset Village and Westmorland. There are some developments that I’ve honestly never heard of and would have to look up to recall their names. One of the most notable projects that my Great Grand Father, John. C McKenna (Google him), was involved with was a development called, Lake Forest. For any Madisonian’s out there who are scratching their heads wondering why they’ve never heard of Lake Forest, there is a good reason for that. No, the name didn’t change. No, it’s not in some obscure location. Lake Forest sits in the middle of the UW Arboretum, just south of the Capitol and along the shores of Lake Wingra. Prime real estate that you’ve never heard of or seen, right?

When I was growing up an original color version of this map ^^^^^ hung in my house (I need to dig it out next time I’m home). My parents would tell me chilling stories of how this “city” on this map sank into the ground one day and it left no trace. I had a dramatic vision of people being sucked into the ground and swirling away into a dark hole and then disappearing forever. Pretty freaky, right? I also knew that my family had some sort of involvement with the development but I didn’t know to what extent. It’s true that what you see on that map did sink into the ground, however it is not nearly as dramatic as I pictured it. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to go on a once-a-year tour of The Lost City in the UW Arboretum. The tour consisted of a 45 minute lecture covering the failed 1920’s development followed by a trek into the woods to find the small traces of what remains of Lake Forest. What I learned about my family’s involvement is that my Great Grand Father was the Real Estate Broker who had been hired by the developer to sell the lots and houses. They talked about Gramps and showed a picture of his house which was then referred to as “The McKenna House.” I’m not sure which number “McKenna House” this one was because I did read in an article about his development history and he lived in 37 homes during his real estate career. Every home he lived in was new construction and was usually in a new development. It was typical of that time to name the house after the first resident. You can look up house names through The Wisconsin Historical Society’s website (The link will take you to the Marcia and John C. McKenna house in Shorewood Hills. My next mission is to track down all 37 homes).  He would build it, sell it, pack up the wife and five kids and move onto the next one. I can say that I definitely inherited the real estate gene from the fam, but you will never catch me moving 37 times. No thank you! 

He was one of just a handful of families to build a home in the development before part of it sank into the ground and the project quite literally sank as well. His house still stands today and I checked it out after the tour. What was once a luxury home in what was supposed to be one of Madison’s most upscale neighborhoods of it’s time, is now quite dumpy and surrounded by apartments, duplexes and 1970’s ranches just off of Fish Hatchery Road. (I didn’t take a picture of his house because I don’t need to be calling someone’s house dumpy and then have them stumble on this blog). The rectangular section of streets on the right, where my Great Grand Father built a home for his family of seven, was the only section that stands today. The triangular section to the lower left is the section that sank into the marsh lands of The Arboretum. My Great Grandfather probably just walked away from his house in Lake Forest and moved onto building a new house in one of his own developments. The time period of the houses that have since gone up around his house look to be from several decades later. I would assume that no one felt confident building there for many, many years. Ol’ G-pa probably couldn’t convince anyone to buy his house even though he was probably one of the most successful real estate professionals of his time. 

Lake Forest consisted of 840 acres of mostly swamp land. The builders grossly miscalculated the amount of fill that the land required to support the roads and foundations. The development didn’t just go under because of poor planning from the developers, however. World War I hurt the national economy and the bond company that financed the development went under due to real estate fraud. It was a combination of all three factors that led to the ultimate failure of the development. A few years after the project collapsed the University of Wisconsin purchased the land and let the forest take over the streets and foundations until it became The Arboretum you see as you walk through it today. 

It was neat to walk the “streets” that Gramps most certainly walked as he prepared to sell the development. He probably stood on the steps below.

I’m off to do more digging. I’ll catch you next time.  

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