Two blocks from my home is the state’s newest National Historic Landmark, the 1,200-acre University of Wisconsin Arboretum, a property I’ve come to know in all seasons because of the pandemic.
Never in my 20-some years here have I ever paid more attention to the nuances of nature at the UW Arboretum. I unknowingly trudged into swamp during spring and repeatedly walked the paved Arboretum Drive in summer (so popular that the roadway was temporarily closed to motorized vehicles). Leaf colors seemed especially brilliant in autumn, and now snowshoes maneuver the property’s pathways.
The area is one of 11 new national landmarks established by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior this winter and represents much more than a pretty walk in the park.
When set up as an environmental laboratory in the 1930s, the Arboretum was an experiment in repairing and reviving nutritionally tired land. Conservationist Aldo Leopold, the property’s first research director, was a pioneer in figuring out how and why humans should heal the land that they damage or destroy.
“Our idea, in a nutshell, is to reconstruct, primarily for the use of the university, a sample of original Wisconsin – a sample of what Dane County looked like when our ancestors arrived here during the 1840s,” he said during Arboretum dedication in 1934.
Why bother? Leopold considered it important to establish a “benchmark, a starting point, in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually beneficial relationship between civilized men and a civilized landscape.”
Within the Arboretum is Curtis Prairie – the nation’s oldest restored prairie, restored wetlands, forests and savannas. What early-day ecologists learned was shared nationally, through technical and academic journals.
“The resource of greatest significance in the Arboretum is the site itself, with its 14 major ecological communities,” explains the nomination for landmark status. “The integrity of these communities cannot be measured by a lack of change, but rather in their evolution toward the vision of restored ecological communities articulated by Leopold.”
More than a pretty and peaceful destination? You bet, but don’t discount the Arboretum’s value as a place for average people to maintain their sanity and reconnect with nature during these most unusual times.
Explore on your own, for free, or stay tuned for when the visitors center, guided hikes and other in-person events resume. Some gatherings are virtual. arboretum.wisc.edu
What other destinations are in the new elite 11? Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, makes the cut as a national landmark because the live music venue is the last place Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson performed.
The trio died in February 1959, shortly after departing on a small aircraft, and the rural Iowa crash site remains a memorial to the musicians.
Surf Ballroom today is a museum with musical artifacts and tours. The biggest live music event, the annual Winter Dance Party, during pre-pandemic times attracted Buddy Holly fans from as far away as England. The 2021 event was canceled because of the pandemic.
The ballroom is within an easy view and walk of a picturesque lake, which is an additional draw in Iowa’s northcentral community of 7,600. surfballroom.com
What else is a National Historic Landmark in Wisconsin? Among the 50 locations are sites that, under normal circumstances, are open to the public. Consider these examples but call before trying to visit during these pandemic times.
Circus World Museum, Baraboo: The former winter quarters for Ringling Bros. is a repository for circus artifacts: performance posters to 250 orate circus wagons. circusworldbaraboo.org
USS Cobia, Manitowoc: The World War II submarine, docked at Wisconsin Maritime Museum, sunk Japanese vessels and was key to the U.S. capture of Iwo Jima. wisconsinmaritime.org
First Unitarian Society, Madison: Frank Lloyd Wright was a member of the congregation and designed the 1951 house of worship, which he referred to as a “country church.” fusmadison.org
S.C. Johnson Administration Building, Racine: The working campus is the only Wright-designed corporate headquarters still in operation. Also in the area is Wright’s Wingspread, a 14,000-square-foot home built for the Johnson family. scjohnson.com (search “tour”), wingspread.com
Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo: The pioneer environmentalist’s weekend family retreat and where he developed principles for “A Sand County Almanac.” aldoleopold.com
Little White Schoolhouse, Ripon: The small and simple building, built in 1853, is the birthplace of the Republican Party, formed to bring together people who were against slavery. littlewhiteschoolhouse.com
Pabst Theater, Milwaukee: The ornate 1895 German Renaissance building is among the nation’s oldest theaters that have continued hosting events. pabsttheater.org
Taliesin, Spring Green: The best-known part of Wright’s Wisconsin estate is one of the architect’s most significant works, gaining UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2019. taliesinpreservation.org
Ten Chimneys, Genesee Depot: The long-ago summer estate for Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne doubles as a resource for education in the arts. tenchimneys.org
Villa Louis, Prairie du Chien: On St. Feriole Island at the Mississippi River is the first state historical site in Wisconsin: a grand rural estate whose restored interior is a prime example of British Arts and Crafts. This building and others in the area – Fort Crawford, Dousman Hotel, Astor Fur Warehouse and Brisbois House – in 1960 became the state’s first national landmarks. villalouis.wisconsinhistory.org, fortcrawfordmuseum.com, thedousmanhouse.com
Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison: The hub for state government was built a century ago with 43 types of stone from six countries and eight states. The building’s dome design was inspired by the U.S. Capitol. tours.wisconsin.gov