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Wisconsin Historical Society shifts site of new museum back to Capitol Square

Wisconsin Historical Society shifts site of new museum back to Capitol Square

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Historical Society Museum

Fred and Mary Mohs are selling two buildings next to the existing Wisconsin Historical Museum at below-market rates to make room for a larger, more functional museum.

In another dramatic twist, the Wisconsin Historical Society has a new site for a dynamic, $120 million standalone museum, returning to its original preference at the top of State Street on Capitol Square.

Under the new plans, the society would demolish its current undersized museum at 30 N. Carrol St. and properties owned by Fred and Mary Mohs at 20 and 22 N. Carroll St. for an expanded 100,000-square-foot facility.

The Mohses are selling the properties at below-market rates to the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, which will donate them to the historical society for construction of the long-anticipated project.

“We are grateful and humbled to acquire the 20-22 North Carroll Street properties at below-market value,” Wisconsin Historical Foundation Director, Julie Lussier said in a statement. “This purchase will ensure the Wisconsin Historical Society can open a new museum on our state’s Capitol Square by 2026.”

The society’s statement did not note the dollar value of the discount and it did not disclose the purchase price.

The Historical Society, established in 1846, has one of the nation’s largest collections of North American historical assets and operates 12 museums and sites. But its flagship museum has been housed in the undersized, 42,000-square-foot former Wolff Kubly hardware store building at 30 N. Carroll St. since 1984.

A new museum has been envisioned for more than two decades, but the project had been stalled. In 2018, the state notified the Historical Society that if it could raise $30 million, the state would deliver the remaining $70 million for the museum. The larger $120 million sum includes an endowment.

The Historical Society, the Mohs and developer Hovde Properties, which owns the historic Churchill Building, 16 N. Carroll St. and other properties on the block, had long seen their holdings as the site for a joint redevelopment with a new museum and private spaces that could have been the largest project in city history with total costs approaching $255 million.

But in January, in a major surprise, the state moved the preferred site to a full block that now features a massive, half-century-old state office building bounded by the 200 blocks of East Washington Avenue and East Main Street, and the 10 block of South Butler and Webster streets.

In May, Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget called for a $276.8 million redevelopment of that site with new Historical Society and Wisconsin Veterans museums and a new six-story state office building on the block as part of a larger plan for state facilities.

Then, in late June, the state Republican-authored budget blocked those plans, directing the historical society to find another location while taking no action — essentially a “no” — on a new Veterans Museum in the biennial budget.

The Mohses’ three-story building at 20 N. Carroll St., built in 1912 and remodeled in 1998, is assessed at $1.43 million for 2021. The three-story building at 22 N. Carroll St., built in 1905 and remodeled in 1998, is also assessed at $1.43 million.

The acquisition of the Mohs properties will increase the museum’s street frontage from the corner of North Carroll and Mifflin streets to the historic, nine-story Churchill Building, which was built in 1915 and is not part of the project. The resulting museum will create a powerful visitor experience with expansive views of the Capitol, said Wes Mosman Block, the society’s deputy director and COO.

“I’m delighted that the Historical Society will remain a fixture of Downtown Madison for years to come,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “The city looks forward to working with the development team as the project moves forward.”

The existing museum, which drew 77,000 visitors annually, including 23,000 school children, before the COVID-19 pandemic, is woefully inadequate.

It has just 17,000 square feet of exhibit space and 10-foot ceilings, half the desired height. There’s no loading dock. The front lobby can be jammed when students are arriving or leaving, and the society sometimes must turn school groups away for lack of space. The building has only two elevators and four bathrooms with a total of eight stalls.

A 1,200-square-foot area behind the main desk serves as space for exhibits, group lunches and programming, with a large column in the middle of the room blocking views when a movie screen is used. The building lacks wide open vistas, a must for modern museums. Seating space is limited. Few windows offer views to the Capitol across the street.

Moreover, all artifacts or exhibits must come through the front door, meaning the society can’t display big items like the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and must severely limit the number and scale of presentations or traveling exhibits. Many of the society’s most treasured holdings can’t be displayed because they’d be damaged by inappropriate lighting and lack of environmental controls.

To shape the new museum the Historical Society has sought input from a broad cross section of the state through community events, meetings with American Indian tribes and outreach to minorities and youth.

Underscoring its broad appeal, former Govs. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and Tommy Thompson, a Republican, have served as fundraising campaign co-chairs.

The historical society will select an architect and engineering team and begin design in early 2022, Mosman Block said. Demolition of existing buildings could occur as soon as 2024, he said.

Underscoring the new museum's broad appeal, former Govs. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and Tommy Thompson, a Republican, have served as fundraising campaign co-chairs for the $120 million project.


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