Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

Partners in Discovery: The Construction of the Discovery Building in 2010

An aerial shot of the Discovery Building at dusk
Nighttime falls over the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID), center; new Union South, at far right; and central University of Wisconsin-Madison campus during a time-exposure photo on July 13, 2011. The 300,000-square-foot WID building houses UW-Madison’s public Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the private Morgridge Institute for Research. On the horizon is the illuminated dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol. The photo was made from the roof of the Engineering Research Building. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

No place on campus encapsulates WARF’s history over the last decade quite like the Discovery Building. Occupying a full city block on University Avenue, Discovery houses three complementary entities: the private, nonprofit Morgridge Institute for Research, supported by WARF; the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), managed by the university; and a community space called the Town Center, run by WARF.1

Situated at a crossroads of academic disciplines, private resources and public engagement, Discovery aims to break new ground in human health. But the edifice itself serves as a metaphor for WARF’s long influence on the built environment of the UW-Madison campus.The physical spaces that the foundation occupied and helped create have been woven into the fabric of the university over the last nine decades.

Many of the structures, landscapes and property connected to the Madison campus have been funded by WARF and shaped by the decisions of foundation personnel. And yet, in the beginning, WARF had no dedicated space to call its own. Steenbock and his assistants conducted their vitamin D experiments in the Agricultural Chemistry Hall. The board of trustees held their first meetings in the Capitol Square office of former University Regent Harry Butler. And much of WARF’s early business took place at the Rookery Building in Chicago, where foundation President George Haight had his law firm.

WARF only consolidated its operations onto the Madison campus after the hiring of its first full-time staff in 1930. The burgeoning business of the Steenbock patents demanded a centralized location and a secretary to handle the volumes of incoming mail. With that in mind, WARF’s director, Harry Russell, convinced the university to lease space to the foundation. The control laboratory relocated to the university’s old Chemical Building, an unused wooden structure just across the railroad tracks, and a few rooms on the first floor of Bascom Hall became the WARF business office for the next decade and a half.

Besides enlarging the foundation’s footprint on campus, WARF’s financial success increased the size of its annual grant to the university. In turn, both the trustees and university administrators expanded their ambitions beyond new equipment and fellowships to include financing for much-needed classroom and laboratory space.

In 1938, WARF provided matching funds for a new General Chemistry Hall and an expansion of the Biochemistry Building. Over the next eight decades, similar arrangements contributed more than $60 million to construct, renovate or purchase the land for as many as 60 campus construction projects.2 Besides numerous laboratories for chemistry, biology and engineering, WARF helped build the Pine Bluff Observatory, the Enzyme Institute, University Houses at Eagle Heights and the University Research Park.3 4

In a more infamous example, WARF funded the addition to Sterling Hall that housed the Army Math Research Center in the 1960s, which became the target of a bomb on August 24, 1970. The ill-planned explosion left the new wing unscathed but claimed the life of Robert Fassnacht, a researcher who was working late that night.

Beyond the direct support from foundation funds, the flexibility of WARF financing enabled university administrators to execute complex real estate deals that might otherwise have fallen through. For instance, at two different times during the 1940s, the university was in danger of losing ownership of the Arboretum and failing to acquire the land at and around Picnic Point.

Rather than trying to convince the legislature to appropriate emergency funding, the administration secured loans from the foundation. That way the previous property owners could be paid on time and the university could retain the titles by fulfilling the mortgages through the annual budget. Both areas have since become indelible pieces of the UW-Madison landscape.

The Arboretum and Picnic Point deals initiated the foundation’s transition from borrowing space and leasing offices to owning property and becoming a steward of the land. First, in 1948, WARF opened a three-story facility of its own on Walnut Street dedicated to larger business offices and an expanded control laboratory.

Then, in 1954 and 1956, WARF grew its land holdings further by acquiring a majority of the land in the Wisconsin Dells. The prior owners hoped to turn over their tourism businesses and property to an organization that would keep the Dells accessible to the public and prevent private development.5 WARF agreed to take on that responsibility with, as one of their managers put it, “the purpose of protecting the ‘natural beauty’ of the Upper and Lower Dells.”6

In the years that followed, as WARF navigated the tumult of the 60s and 70s, the foundation’s needs for physical space changed again.7 8 In 1969, the control laboratory became a wholly-owned subsidiary of WARF. Soon thereafter, its operations moved to Truax Field. After several sales and acquisitions, that location now holds the Madison branch of Covance Inc.

With much of their existing facilities no longer in use and soon to become outdated, the board began looking to modernize the foundation’s headquarters. For that purpose, they executed a land swap that gave the old WARF headquarters to the Forest Products Laboratory, while WARF acquired the lot on the corner of Walnut Street and Observatory Drive. The foundation’s new property became home to a 14-story, triangular skyscraper.

For the first 30 years of the new WARF building’s existence, the university rented out the bottom floors for surge space, meaning departments and programs could relocate there on a temporary basis while transitioning to new locations. Foundation staff occupied the conference rooms and offices on the top floors.

The surge space leases marked the peak of WARF’s real estate holdings. At the end of the original contract in 2001, the foundation donated its new building to the university, on the condition that the foundation could occupy the top floors in perpetuity. Shortly thereafter, WARF sold the last of its land in the Dells to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

With no land of its own, WARF once again became a tenant of the university, but the foundation’s exit from property ownership would only last a few years. In 2004, WARF trustee John Morgridge and his wife, Tashia, approached Managing Director Carl Gulbrandsen with a proposal to form a nonprofit research institute attached to the UW-Madison campus. They hoped to bring to Madison, Wis., the same groundbreaking level of interdisciplinary research that the Bio-X Program, located in the Clark Center at Stanford, had brought to Palo Alto, Calif.9

That same year, Governor Jim Doyle, looking to keep Wisconsin competitive in a high tech economy, announced a major initiative to fund a university biotechnology center.10 After a period of public debate and project development, the Morgridges persuaded the Governor to bring their two projects together under one roof. In their view, the breadth of a public university combined with the streamlined organization of a private institute would, as the Morgridge Institute describes it today, “leverag[e] our collective strengths in research and education.”11

By the time the Discovery Building opened in 2010, the brick and mortar relationship between WARF and UW-Madison had come full circle – from sharing offices in Bascom Hall to joint ownership of an experimental public-private space. In 2015, an estimated 100,000 people from campus and the community will visit the Discovery Building to take part in scientific and educational programs. They become just the latest participants in an historic, nine decade partnership set to continue well into the future.

Kevin Walters