Vesterheim Commons Building soft opening during Nordic Fest

By Kate Klimesh,

Standing symmetrically in front of the “Oculus” on the Vesterheim Commons Building’s second floor is (l) Becky Idstrom, Communications and Marketing Director, and Chris Johnson, President and CEO.

The Vesterheim Museum renovation and construction of the Commons Building, part of their Strong Roots | Bold Future campaign to unify the Vesterheim campus from museum to Folk Art School, is going well and on schedule. Vesterheim President and CEO Chris Johnson noted they would be moving into the space by mid-July and holding a soft opening of the Commons Building over Nordic Fest at the end of this month with many folk art demonstrations to celebrate the new connections. The formal dedication of the new 7,600 sq. ft. facility, designed as the central welcome center of the campus, is slated for Saturday, Sept. 30. 

Designed as the new “front door” of the Vesterheim campus, they look forward to celebrating what took 90 years of property acquisition and years of planning (their first call to Snøhetta in 2017) to complete: a unified campus with unique comfortable spaces for exhibits, community education and gatherings to become a complete destination, and connect an intercultural, intergenerational community both in-person as well as through remote digital access.

Landscaping began in April with trees, bushes, rock features and outdoor space and peripheral lighting, in addition to creating spaces for community events outside as well as inside. Creating a natural outdoor space between the Museum, Commons and the Heritage Park helps tie the campus together, while offering outdoor spaces to enjoy the campus and nearby inspiration.

Throughout the newest spaces, circular areas have been designed and built as glades – an open spot found in the forest.  These glades allow for reflection, connection and focus on the Norwegian-American story. Especially designed is the original Restauration replica in paving stones leading from the courtyard between the museum and commons back to the Heritage Park. You may have seen the “sails” attached to the side of the museum, which ties in the shape – built in the actual dimensions of the small sloop that delivered 53 Norwegian immigrants to America in 1825.

All the new spaces are meant to be not only aesthetic, but created with sustainability in mind, and be highly functional for daily use and for events and community gatherings. Storage areas are thoughtfully placed, while collection areas and spaces are artfully designed for best, most efficient use as well as flexible use of spaces. The acanthus carvings surrounding the Museum Store entrance is more fully visible with the new entrance from the Commons and now stands fully-framed and visible.

Johnson stated, “This space provides a lot of function we simply didn’t have before. Having a central front door is important, as is connecting the Commons and the Folk Art School on each level. Now we can hold special events on-site, we have additional meeting spaces and a full digital production space as well. This answers many needs.”

Finalizing the finishing construction before taking occupancy of the space, landscaping continues to bridge the space between Heritage Park and Water Street. Features of the main level include a catering kitchen for use during events inside the Commons or outside in the Park, with room for a food truck outdoors as well, should the need arise.  

In the interior of the museum is another glade, or heart of the Commons called the Oculus, made of western red cedar. It allows natural light to pass through, and provides a more open feel to the main level which, ringed in glass windows, showcases the activity and energy of the Commons from the street.  From the second floor through the Oculus, one can see the outline of the country of Norway in the polished concrete floor with local aggregate for added rustic texture. 
On the second level, the Oculus serves as a central artistic feature for the space, to be used as the Gallery for art exhibits, while the third floor offers some lounge areas, office space and the digital production area. The ceiling slats are all Alaskan yellow cedar. 

“Wood is not only an important part of our collections, but also of our identity. Even the glued laminate timbers are warm, but also much lighter than steel beams meaning it needed less concrete in its foundation, and that means less carbon – another sustainability feature that was given a lot of thought,” Johnson stated, “Working with Snøhetta, of course, we included Scandinavian design, but we also looked at where we came from as an organization and the collection, historic buildings and surrounding area… it was a natural thing to feature.”

Connecting the Vesterheim Commons Building to the existing building on Water Street was a challenge, however the crews took particular care to ensure a seamless transition that ties the entire block together, addresses the past while creating useful spaces for community events and educational opportunities as well as traveling exhibits.

The leadership’s planning goes far beyond the Commons structure, into facility operations with an eye for at least through 2025, the 200th anniversary of the Great Migration of Norwegians to America that began in 1825 with 52 Norwegians aboard the sloop Restauration (53 were delivered with the birth of a child during the voyage).

An advantage of using wood was that it adds warmth to the space. “Also, it helps us with our sustainability goals – how we use energy in the building and what materials are being used to make the building. All the timbers were made nearby in Albert Lea, Minn., and were manufactured from Douglas Fir, which is easy to grow and a renewable resource.”

Pairing the wood with exposed concrete walls was a design choice, noted Johnson. “We wanted a very honest structure, hearkening back to the original log cabins in Heritage Park, but with a modern feel. It was very important to us as well to preserve the original limestone wall from the 1850s blacksmith shop.  It gives a beautiful character to the front reception area.”

Limestone, brick, wood, glass and concrete ties the Commons with the museum history, Decorah history, the Norwegian history in this area, and is a familiar, yet fresh aesthetic. Featuring outdoor spaces as well as indoor spaces for many gathering and event opportunities, they have even planned for future access should they decide to connect the museum and the commons building directly.  

“And keep in mind, this outdoor space will look dramatically different in five years when the trees get a bit bigger, but also in 20 years.” Planning for future use is expanding with the digital production space as well, “it’s a full digital production studio, with variable light, sound and tools for creating video – whether to Facebook Live or to YouTube.  People now can still engage with Vesterheim from half-way around the world – something we saw had tremendous growth during the pandemic.”

The Commons Building may be nearing completion, but their Strong Roots | Bold Future campaign continues through Dec. 31 of this year. Once the campaign is concluded, a donor wall is planned. 

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