1930 – 1940

The 1930s may have been the darkest decade in history for the United States. Notoriously regarded as the Great Depression, widespread economic downturn struck the Nation. Stock market prices collapsed. Industrial production subsided. Unemployment skyrocketed. Most construction ceased to continue.

In Madison, building permits even shrunk from 5,000 in 1929 to as little as 312 in 1933. Despite such gloom filtering into the homes and businesses across America, Findorff was confident in facing its future. Large contracts were already in place for the decade before and enough public construction was available that allowed the Company not only to survive, but also thrive during a time of such destitution.

In April 1930, Findorff began construction on the first wing for the Capitol Annex located on a challenging site defined by a steep bluff overlooking Lake Monona. Featuring a granite exterior cut by Green Bay reformatory labor, the building’s six-floor section opened in late 1931, followed by its 11-story Center in 1939.

At the start of the decade, Findorff was able to additionally budget for and construct a new mechanical engineering building for UW-Madison in collaboration with the State’s architect, Arthur Peabody. The project marked a significant shift for the University. Its engineering department needed to be relocated from its original facilities along Bascom Hill to a much larger site along the northeast side of Camp Randall Stadium to accommodate increasing enrollment and thus, future development. A formal dedication was even held in June 1931 for this notable building, where former Governor Philip La Follette and former UW President, Glenn Frank spoke to the project.

The year of 1931 marked another fundamental event for Findorff, exemplifying its persistence through difficult times. Although few companies were hiring, Findorff made a vital addition to its employee roster. Madison native, Harold Hastings, was hired that year and successfully withstood the test of time. He started as a project manager, but later was promoted to the Company’s President and then Chairman. His son, Curt, would go on to become a co-owner when the Company went private in 1981.

In 1932, when A. G. Schmedeman became the first and only Madison Mayor to be elected governor, the City’s Common Council choose his successor and architect, James R. Law, who designed many of Madison’s most important buildings and was a fellow Rotarian of John H. Findorff. The Council’s confidence was well-placed; Law served until he was named the Chair of the State Highway Commission in 1943, which marked the longest consecutive tenure in Madison’s history.

As the Great Depression deepened, even Findorff’s most valuable employees were in need of supplemental work. John’s son, Milton, who also served as President of the Madison Association of Commerce in 1932, administered the federal coal industry code as a part-time employee of the National Recovery Administration.

Several residential projects also became part of Findorff’s portfolio at this time, such as the luxurious art deco Quisling Apartments on Wisconsin Avenue. Additionally, Findorff constructed private residences in the exclusive Maple Bluff and Fuller’s Woods enclaves, including that of Emil Frautschi, one of the City’s most established and multi-generational families.

Despite struggling times in America, Findorff still persevered in its growth as an established contractor for Madison. The Company made two important additions to its equipment inventory. In 1936, Findorff bought its first crane for the construction of the Oscar Mayer car-icing building. Shortly afterwards, Findorff bought a concrete pump to complete construction of the first addition to the State Office Building. In keeping with the Company’s conservative business practices, both items were purchased secondhand. Specifically, the concrete pump had just been used for the Johnson Wax headquarters, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Racine. This particular piece of equipment was so useful on the State Office Building and in future work that Harold Hastings developed a sentimental attachment to it and kept it in the Company’s yard long after it became obsolete.

As the 1930s came to a close, Findorff established firm footing, actually executing more contracts than it did in the decade prior. However, the decade also concluded with the start of World War II and thus put an abrupt halt to the dismal lull of the 1930s. Having maintained steadfast in its business practices, Findorff’s workload propelled into overdrive as massive wartime projects were assigned across Southwestern Wisconsin at the start of the 1940s.

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Notable Projects

  • Burroughs School (now Lapham School)
  • Capitol Annex
  • East High School Additions
  • Frautschi Household
  • Industrial School for Girls in the Town of Oregon (now Oakhill Correctional Institution)
  • UW-Madison Mechanical Engineering Building
  • Oscar Mayer Car-icing Building
  • State Office Building
  • Quisling Apartments
  • Washington School (now District Offices)