Trek’s Mansion Hill Inn
By Brian E. Clark
In 1857, wealthy builder Alexander McDonnell asked architect and German emigrant August Kutzboch to design him “the best house money could buy.”
The ostentatious McDonnell chose a wooded lot for his home on a promontory called Bug Hill on the isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. The young city, which only had a population of around 6,000 souls at the time, was the Badger State’s rapidly growing capital.
The architectural result was a stunning, 9,000-square foot mansion built in the German Romanesque Revival style that features arched windows and stained glass. It also has touches of New Orleans with wrought-iron balconies and buttresses.
Nestled inside the sandstone structure at the corner of North Pinckney and East Gilman streets is a four-story, oval-shaped mahogany spiral staircase that leads to a belvedere (a small, window-enclosed room) at the top of the home. From there, the McDonnells and their guests had views of Lake Mendota less than two blocks to the north and downtown Madison to the south.
It wasn’t long before the neighborhood, which came to be known as Mansion Hill, had other fine dwellings. Some were even larger than that of McDonnell’s home. By contrast, a dwelling just down West Gilman that became the home for a number of Wisconsin’s governors was attractive, yet smaller, than McDonnell’s impressive abode.
Interestingly, McDonnell was the contractor in charge of building the state’s new domed capitol, its third. Kutzboch was the architect along with partner Samuel Donnel.
Today, the McDonnell’s former domicile is known as the Mansion Hill Inn (mansionhillinn.com). It was purchased in 2008 by Trek Bicycles and Trek Hospitality, which soon set about renovating the 10-bedroom hotel.
It’s an excellent spot for basing a visit to Madison and its surrounding environs, which include the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus only seven blocks away. The city has grown a bit since McDonnell’s day and now has a population of more than 270,000.
If you stay at the Mansion Hill Inn, you might run into Trek cyclists or others doing business with the Waterloo-based company, which is about 24 miles to the east. Founded in 1976 by Dick Burke and Bevil Hogg, Trek is now the largest manufacturer of bikes in the United States. The company has more than 2,000 employees – half of whom are based in Waterloo – sells 1.5 million bikes a year, and has annual revenues of nearly $1 billion.
On a recent overnight at the hostelry, my guest and I were led by innkeeper Ethan Yesutis up the steep, winding spiral stairs to the belvedere. From there, we could look to the south and see the capitol and the gleaming, 15-foot-tall, gold-leaf-covered statue of a woman at its peak. Atop her helmet are clusters of grapes and the state animal, the badger, which is also the mascot for UW-Madison.
“I’d like to think that McDonnell came up here to see the progress on his capitol building and the finished result during the dozen or so years that he and his family lived here,” mused Yesutis, who grew up in Chicago and worked at Madison restaurants before signing on with the inn.
Yesutis said the house passed through several families and was once known as the McDonnell-Pierce home. Its time as a single-family residence ended around 1900.
It then became a fashionable boarding house, which Yesutis said was popular with well-to-do scholars, faculty members and some of Madison’s most notable citizens. By the 1930’s, after boarding houses fell out of favor, the building was converted into apartments. In 1983, the Alexander Company purchased the house and turned it into a historic boutique hotel.
The 27-year-old Yesutis told us the inn’s history and served us wine and nuts shortly after our arrival in the inn’s bar, which had once been a large bedroom. Across the foyer is the parlor, where craftsmen did an outstanding job restoring the crown and ceiling molding.
“I love that a piece of Madison’s architectural history has been so beautifully preserved here,” said Yesutis, who rides a Trek Domane SL5 road bike. “I like to say that the Mansion Hill Inn is elegant, but not standoffish because we do our best to be very welcoming.” Rates range from $260 to $370 a night.
For guests who don’t want to climb the steep spiral staircase, Yesutis recommends one of the five bedrooms on the first or second floors. (The first floor is actually down from the main level and has access to an outside veranda.)
My guest and I stayed on the third floor in Room No. 7, which had a fireplace, fresh flowers, some delicious chocolate cookies Yesutis baked, a view of three other mansions at the same intersection and a quirky treat: a large bookcase/door that swung open to give access to the majestic bathroom.
The home also pays homage to the Burke family and Trek bikes with historic photographs throughout the rooms. One photograph, from 1978, is in the parlor and shows Dick Burke and Trek co-founder Bevil Hogg with one of their first bicycles.
Another shows a young Burke on a tricycle. A third, also in the parlor, is of the family matriarch, Elaine. In the bar, a photo from 2001 shows the late Burke, who died in 2008, with one of the company’s road bikes.
One of my favorites, which was in our room, is a photograph of Dick with his son John – who is now president of Trek – in the Colorado Rockies. It was taken in 1981 on the Continental Divide at the peak of Independence Pass, elevation 12,095 feet.
Yesutis said he and other members of the staff are glad to provide suggestions about things to see and places to dine. Or direct cyclists to bike trails, of which there are more than 100 miles in and around Madison.
For foodies, he recommends the Dane County Farmers Market (dcfm.org/markets/saturday-on-the-square), which is held every Saturday on the tree-lined Capitol Square from spring into November. Or the Concerts on the Square (wcoconcerts.org/concerts-tickets/concerts-on-the-square), which occur on Wednesday evenings in the summer and fall.
For dining, some of Yesutis’ favorites include the Harvey House (theharveyhouse.com), a supper club in an historic railroad depot. In 2022, it was named one of the top 50 restaurants in the country by New York Times food critics.
He also likes La Kitchenette (lakitchenettemadison.com), which he describes as a “hole in the wall on Willie Street” that serves homestyle French cuisine, and the Mintmark (mintmarkmadison.com), which he said is in an old bank and offers “produce-forward” meals and tasty cocktails.
After a good night’s sleep, we ate a breakfast in the parlor that offered a choice of delicious baked goods from Madison Sourdough (madisonsourdough.com), a bakery on Williamson Street, coffee, juice, fresh fruit, granola and berries. The only thing wrong with our day, my guest told me, was that we stayed but one evening. Two, she said, would have been a real treat.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. 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.