Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Incorporated in 1809, Madison quickly established itself as a significant cultural and industrial town in the Old Northwest Territory. Sitting prominently on the Ohio River between the hubs of Cincinnati and Louisville, the town became a lifeline for transportation and industry in the middle territories of the country. Waterfront factories drew commerce and wealth to the town, attracting settlers from the East Coast. Along with an entrepreneurial spirit, settlers brought to Madison architectural styles and cultural practices that flourished.
Federal style architecture, first adopted by wealthy merchants in New England, is the most common style found in Madison. Well over 400 Federal style buildings grace the district. The Jeremiah Sullivan House at 304 West Second Street and a group of Federal rowhouses in the 500 block of Jefferson Street illustrate the very fancy (Sullivan House) and more modest (Federal rowhouses) characteristics of Federal balance and symmetry. Greek Revival style architecture of the same period is marked by small porches and columned entryways reminiscent of Greek temples. Architect Francis Costigan built a number of notable Greek Revival buildings in Madison, including the J. F. D. Lanier Mansion at 601 West First Street and the Charles Shrewsbury House at 301 West First Street. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, the talented Costigan drew inspiration from the work of great architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and brought west some of the fine architectural craftsmanship for which Madison is so remarkable today.
In addition to spurring industry, the Ohio River also served as a major transportation network for the Underground Railroad and established Madison as a center in the freedom-seeking movement. This history can be traced today through the noteworthy extant buildings associated with the abolitionist movement and its leaders, a distinction acknowledged when the area was named the first Underground Railroad historic district to become part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom. Although the region was relatively tolerant, a fair number of pro-slavery supporters resided in pre-Civil War Madison. The division between pro and anti-slavery supporters in Madison was indicative of the dangerous struggle between free and slave States taking place on a national scale in the United States before the Civil War.
Despite opposition from slavery sympathizers, African Americans were able to carve out a strong community in Madison. The Georgetown Neighborhood served as the center of this community and today preserves a number of churches, businesses, and residences of free, antebellum African Americans. William Anderson formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church at 309 East Fifth Street in 1849. The building was a gathering place for the free African American community in Madison and a crucial first stop along the Underground Railroad in a free State. Madison continued to be an important center for African American life after the Civil War.
Increased stability after the war brought renewed industry, marked by the construction of factories and residences. One well-known factory still standing today is the Ben Schroeder Saddletree Factory at 106 Milton Street, which made wooden saddletrees for 94 years. In 2002, the building became the Ben Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum where visitors can learn about the making of saddletrees and the importance of industrial heritage in Madison. Along with the growth of manufacturing came the need for more homes. Industrial workers typically lived in simple, rectangular buildings commonly called “shotgun houses” whose rooms were stacked one against the other with no halls or passageways for circulation. A very modest example of a shotgun house is located on 422 East Street.
More elaborate homes for wealthier individuals took on popular post-Civil War styles of Italianate and Gothic Revival architecture, inspired by the Pictureseque Movement from England. Many buildings along Main Street were either built in the Italianate style or had embellishments added later that were typical of Italianate architecture, including large cornice bracketing and round-arched doors. The Stribling House at 625 West Second Street, which dates from around 1840, was intentionally altered to suit the popular style of the time with the addition of pressed metal over the front door surrounded by two elaborate scrolls. The Stribling House also has a remarkable ornamental iron fence, a tribute to both the wealth of the owners and the use of the river to transport such industry.
Notable examples of 20th century styles include a prime example of Art Deco architecture, the Brown Memorial Gymnasium at 120 Broadway. Constructed in 1924 and added to in 1939, the building is marked by a huge concrete frame above the main entrance and surface sanded to make it appear like stone. While the Depression temporarily halted most construction in Madison, some public funds were allocated for facilities such as the Crystal Beach Pool and Bath House at 400 West Vaughn Drive. The Works Progress Administration built this important recreational asset that was dedicated in 1939 and is still being used by the community today.
The U.S. Office of War Information recognized Madison's visual and emotional appeal by selecting the community as the subject of its 1945 film “The Town.” The historic, picturesque, and friendly small town of Madison personified and demonstrated to the world the quality of life and American values that were so at stake in World War II for the United States.
Today, citizens of Madison and visitors alike find much to experience and enjoy in the Madison Historic District with its fine collection of historic commercial, institutional, and residential buildings and its quaint streets, public parks, and gardens. The district offers many attractions including a variety of restaurants and cafes, antique and other specialty stores, bed and breakfasts, and more. It also serves as a backdrop for annual festivals such as the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art and the RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival.