How does one restore a "sense of place" when there is little evidence of what the original looked like?

Architectural detective work, attention to quality, brilliant - meaning both bright and intelligent - solutions and persistence were brought to the task of restoring the Library Reading Room at the Wisconsin Historical Society's campus headquarters.

For the $2.9 million renovation and restoration project, the society received a room demure in tone, expansive in structure and inventive in meeting an odd challenge of in-with-the-really-old, out-with-the-old.

These subjectives the public can test for itself in tours Friday and Saturday, but students and other researchers have already responded positively to the new room: The comfy brown leather reading chairs, the special soothing color tones, the lovingly restored column plaster curleys and cues and dangly bell flowers, the mahogany tables, the handy outlets for laptop computers and the inviting green-shaded lamps.

"We had to restore the look and retain the functionality," said Peter Gottlieb, state archivist.

This restoration dates to 1955 when the room - which is on the second floor, facing the Library Mall - was significantly and, nearly fatally, altered. Only if you had been there before then would you have known about the ornate stained glass skylight panels.

"Nearly fatal" because the skylights were smashed and the ceiling was dropped and the graceful room turned into more "room" and less "grace." The "new" ceiling, with ornate plaster rosettes, gold leaf accents and a blushing ocre contrast color, is gasp-inducing.

"We had one photograph, a black-and-white," said Jim Draeger, the society's architectural historian, of the search for samples of what the room looked like in 1900, when the Neoclassical Revival building was dedicated. They also had one postcard, hand-tinted, from Germany, dated 1900. Researchers scoured records for written descriptions of the room, looking for colors, consulted old blueprints, followed clues from the way the tiny mosaic floor tiles were colored.

One fused green glass lampshade was found in the museum's collection, and from that, the stylish lamps were recreated - even the deepening shade of green was duplicated - returning "task lighting" and a casual intimacy to the room.

Ellsworth Brown, society director, described the project in historical context, noting that the building for 50 years was the UW-Madison library, and that reading room then and since was defined by users' experiences.

"This is a declaration of a sense of place," Brown said, inviting the public to rediscover it.

One element the reading room has less of now than before, he said, is books. More reference books are available online, so fewer are in the wooden shelves.

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