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Madison’s Casually Elegant Edgewater Hotel

Edgewater Hotel. Photo Edgewater Hotel.

By Brian E. Clark

On a recent balmy summer night in downtown Madison, WI, my girlfriend and I watched the sun sink into Lake Mendota from the deck of the Edgewater Hotel (theedgewater.com).

The glowing red orb silhouetted a sailboat just offshore of the casually elegant hostelry’s pier before it disappeared behind Picnic Point, a finger of forested land that juts out into the lake on the nearby University of Wisconsin campus.

The sunset finished off a pleasant evening at the storied hotel, which included a delicious dinner at the Statehouse Restaurant – salmon for me and filet mignon for my partner – snippets of a movie on the outdoor public plaza (2001: A Space Odyssey) and a stroll around the Mansion Hill neighborhood.

Better yet, we capped off the night with a stay in a room with curved windows that overlooked the pier, the lake, the university’s Memorial Union and its waterside Terrace in the distance.

Guestroom. Photo Edgewater Hotel.

Sandwiched between the Capitol and the state’s flagship university, the Edgewater has been the hotel of choice for visiting dignitaries and celebrities of all stripes since it opened in 1948, Managing Director Amy Supple told me.

Those notables range from Elvis Presley to Dalai Lama to Tony Bennet to Indira Gandhi to Bob Hope to Bob Marley to Elton John.

And Jimmy Dorsey’s jazz band played on the roof of the hotel in the 1950s. Dozens of autographed celebrity portraits from those glory days, as well as photographs of famed university scientists, other academics and politicians line several hallways.

The Edgewater also has strong local ties, hosting countless weddings, anniversaries and other family celebrations from residents of Madison and beyond, to say nothing of romantic dinners, trysts and happy go lucky summer afternoons.

Supple said the Edgewater was the brainchild of the Quisling family, which ran a prosperous medical clinic only a few blocks away. They hired Chicago architect Lawrence Monberg, who produced an Art Moderne design –  something akin to Art Deco with its curved corners and circular, nautical windows – for the hotel.

By the early 2000s, however, the Edgewater had become “tired and lost some of its stature along the way,” Supple said.

In stepped developer and Madison-native Robert Dunn – whose other projects include the numerous health centers and redevelopment of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field and the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field.

Edgewater Hoterl. Photo Edgewater Hotel.

The $100 million renovation – which tastefully combines past and present – began in 2012 and the hotel was shut down for two years.

The entire property was gutted down to the studs and the plaza was opened up when the top of an existing structure was lopped off.  The tower was added next and the new-and-improved Edgewater opened in 2014 to acclaim. Later that year, it was declared a Historic Hotel of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, just one of five such hotels in Wisconsin.

A day spa was added, which offers bridal and other services. It also has a fitness facility and a relaxation pool that overlook the lake.

But the new owner kept the casual, lakefront Boathouse Bar and Grill, which sits cheek by jowl with the 40-slip hotel pier, which offers free daytime dockage.

While the Statehouse Restaurant has a more upscale menu, the Boathouse offers comfort-food options like burgers, chicken sandwiches and that ubiquitous Wisconsin favorite: fried cheese curds.

“Removing the upper floors of the building where the plaza is now located allowed us to open up the view corridor to the waterfront and back to the Capitol from the lake,” explained Supple, who said the hotel now consists of three buildings.

“Landscape architect John Nolan’s plan was to make the end of the street a public park. So we essentially did that with a quasi-public space in the form of the plaza.”

Edgewater Hotel. Photo Brian E. Clark.

She said the architecture of the new tower – which now gives the hotel more than 200 rooms and suites – was designed “to be complementary to the Art Moderne design, but not to mimic it completely.

“Our thought process was we wanted the buildings to feel like a collection of buildings around a plaza and not one single structure.

“If you look at it from the street, you can’t really tell that the three structures are connected underground. And that was intentional. It was meant to feel in scope and scale like a collection of buildings that were part of the neighborhood.”

Supple said you don’t need to stay at the hotel to enjoy its offerings.

On Fridays when the weather allows, the Edgewater hosts bluegrass concerts on the plaza. Thursdays are movie nights. There are Milwaukee Brewers watch parties on Tuesday evenings and family game nights on Wednesdays, all of which are free and open to the public, Supple said.

And come winter, the plaza is turned into an ice-skating rink. The hotel charges a fee for its use, but the rates are pegged to prices at city rinks, she noted.

“We do this as part of our commitment to being part of the community and wanting to activate the lakefront and make it a place for everybody to come,” Supple said.

“Madison is a city of lakes and this lake – Mendota – is the largest of them. Our presence on it links the city to the lakefront and the university.

“In a sense, we are a point of connection of all three things.  We celebrate them with our architecture as well as how we operate by trying to bring different pieces of the community together with our offerings.”

For out-of-town visitors, Supple said she views the AAA Four Diamond property as an urban resort.

Edgewater Hotel. Photo Kyle Hulse.

“What I mean by that is that when you come and stay for the weekend, you can hear music, have brunch, go out on a boat, dine at one of our several venues and even go to the spa.

“You really never need to leave the property. But we are also so close to downtown and the university, so you can experience a lot of what is great about Madison, too, including the great farmers’ market held Saturdays on the Capitol Square.”

And her favorite part of the hotel?

Boathouse Bar and Grill. Photo Brian E. Clark.

“I love it when we’re busy, the sun is shining and you’re out on the plaza listening to music and seeing all the boats on the lake. That makes for some very special moments.”

Even better, perhaps, when the sun is setting.

If You Go:   The hotel offers a variety of packages, including deals for University of Wisconsin alumni: https://www.theedgewater.com/package/uw-alumni-package/

Brian E. Clark

Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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