A drum set from an innovative Wisconsin musician and record producer, the roll-top desk of a Milwaukee civil rights leader and a 3-horse outboard motor designed by Ole Evinrude. Each has its place in state history.
So does a section of a pagoda-style roof from a Milwaukee gas station, a printing press from the 1850s last used in Evansville and the coaster car that won the 1936 Soap Box Derby in Madison. There was also a newspaper box from The Onion and a wood stove from the early 1900s.
On Thursday, they shared space on a moving truck for a trip across the isthmus — rising from the basement of the Wisconsin Historical Society and ending up in one of the most modern and sophisticated historical storage facilities in the world. Located near the Yahara River between East Washington Avenue and Williamson Street, the $46.7 million State Archive Preservation Facility is slowly filling its 188,000 square feet of climate-controlled space with some of the most important and historically significant items in the state and, in some cases, the country.
But it won’t happen over a long weekend or even a few weeks.
Over the next 18 months, professional movers and volunteers, under the watchful eye of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Veterans Museum and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, will haul more than 500,000 historical artifacts into the cavernous building at 202 S. Thornton Ave. The facility also will house 200,000 library books and 55,000 archival boxes with millions of pages of manuscripts and documents from state agencies and officials.
In some cases, items and documents have been stored in rented warehouse space or at other state-owned facilities. But for the Historical Society and Veterans Museum, the new building will free up valuable space never intended to properly store artifacts. For the film and theater center, a specially designed vault kept at 38 degrees will better preserve thousands of film and audio recordings. The overall size of the new building will provide consolidated space designed to maintain and organize the state’s treasures.
“It’s a major step forward,” said Christian Overland, who in January was named director of the Historical Society after spending over 25 years at the internationally renowned Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. “What’s important about this facility is that it allows people to understand how we’re caring for their items. We can preserve your family legacy or your business legacy forever.”
It’s a ‘safe,’ not a museum
The facility, commonly referred to as “the safe,” is not a museum and won’t be open to the public, save for the occasional public tour or open house.
Instead, the four-story building is for storage and preservation, including a state-of-the-art conservator lab. So when a researcher, student, genealogist or any other member of the public needs access to a document or book, it will be pulled from the facility and taken by courier to either the Historical Society or Veterans Museum. Those wishing to study larger items that can’t be easily moved will be asked to go the new facility by appointment, which will also allow the museums to more easily access items for rotating exhibits.
“This building is designed for the collections,” said Matt Blessing, the Historical Society’s administrator of the division of library and archives. “It’s not meant to be a public-service hub of activity. It’s designed for the preservation of the state’s cultural heritage assets.”
The archive and preservation facility, which has been discussed for decades, was approved by the state for funding in 2013. It was built on a 5.1-acre site that, since 1972, had been used for state vehicles, mail handling and printing services. Those operations have been moved to other sites to make way for the archives facility, which was completed in November. Over the last four months, the facility has been outfitted with movable shelving racks, cabinets and drawers manufactured by Spacesaver Corp. in Fort Atkinson, which provides archival storage systems around the world.
The moving process began last month and started at a rented warehouse on East Main Street, where 20,000 boxes of library and archival material have been stored.
From Yugo to Ferrari
The Veterans Museum has 25,000 square feet of storage on the first floor, and the Historical Society has identical-sized space on the fourth floor. The second and third floors are reserved for library books, manuscripts, newspapers from the Historical Society and public documents from nearly every state agency. There are boxes filled with papers from Gov. Scott Walker and past governors, the state Supreme Court and the Wisconsin State Fair.
Every item or box of documents receives a bar code and is stored not by subject, but by size.
“It optimizes our space,” said Lisa Saywell, director of public services and reference in the Historical Society’s library, archives and museum collection’s division. “It allows us to use space in ways that we weren’t able to at our headquarters building. And it has the preservation and environment controls that we didn’t have there or at our off-site facilities.”
For the Veterans Museum, located on Capitol Square, the new archive and preservation facility will provide a home for 200 Civil War battle flags that will each have its own drawer instead of being layered on top of one another in the basement of the museum. There will be better storage for hardtack from the Spanish-American War, a World War II flight jacket worn by Lawrence Roberts of Dousman and the feathers from Old Abe, the eagle carried into Civil War battles but mostly destroyed when the state Capitol burned in 1904.
In total, the Veterans Museum will move 22,000 objects and 6,400 letters, photographs and documents. The move began April 9 and is expected to be completed by late September or early October. Michael Telzrow, director of the museum, said the new space not only provides more appropriate storage, but will allow the museum’s collections to grow.
“We can be a little more aggressive in our collecting of the stories of our veterans,” Telzrow said. “The previous facility, while it served us fairly well for a number of years, was inadequate in many ways. We’ve gone from a Yugo to a Ferrari. It’s going to make a big difference.”
Cross-section of history
The 19,000-square-foot basement of the historical society, located at the corner of South Park and Langdon streets and a few hundred yards from Lake Mendota, has been less than ideal. Water, steam and drain pipes zig-zag through the walls and ceilings, and some of the collection is covered in plastic sheets as a preventative measure.
But the basement has been home to a remarkable cross-section of Wisconsin’s history. It’s crammed from floor to ceiling with 110,000 historic objects and hundreds of boxes filled with 400,000 archaeological artifacts such as Native American arrowheads, fossils and pottery.
There are slot machines from raids on bars in the 1930s and ’40s, wooden crates and barrels from breweries in Wausau, Oconomowoc and Cassville and a copper kettle once used to make Swiss cheese in Rice Lake. Part of the engine from the van used in the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall at UW-Madison is stored in the basement, along with a full-size harp from sculptor Vinnie Ream and a colorful sign from the defunct Mifflin Street Co-op in Madison.
All of it — including 70,000 reels of microfilm of newspapers after 1870 and 11,000 bound volumes of newspapers from before 1870 — is being moved.
“I’ve been planning for this for almost a decade,” said Scott Roller, the Historical Society’s senior collections manager, who was told of the project when he was hired in 1995. “It’s just a lot to keep track of.”
Four canoes — one dugout, two birch-bark and an aluminum MirroCraft made in Manitowoc by Mirro Aluminum Co. — can’t be moved until some shelving is emptied and removed. Same goes for the 15-foot wooden bobsled from 1918. It’s unclear if the milling machine from Kearney & Trecker Corp. in West Allis will be moved at all. The freight elevator at the Historical Society is rated for 3,000 pounds. And while it made it down, it’s not known if the cast-iron machine, built sometime between 1900 and 1920, can be lifted up to the society’s loading dock.
Moving boxes of small artifacts will go quickly, but it’s the larger items that take time.
Butch Vig, one of the founding members of the rock band Garbage and owner of the now-closed Smart Studios on East Washington Avenue in Madison, donated in 2010 the five-piece Ludwig drum set he played as a youth growing up in Viroqua. To move the drum kit and its collection of cymbals and stands out of the Historical Society’s basement and to the new archives facility, it was packed into three boxes, each on casters. The boxes were then rolled to a freight elevator and onto the waiting truck.
The desk of Vel Phillips, a groundbreaking politician and civil rights activist who died last week, took a similar journey — as will thousands of other objects. A piece of roof from Wadham’s Oil and Grease Co. in Milwaukee — 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide — was trickier. Once placed on casters, its height required moving crews to wind their way through the halls of the basement without running the pagoda-style roof, designed in 1930 by Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler, into low-hanging pipes.
For the movers, it’s not that much different from a typical house job, but this one is longer and perhaps has more meaning.
“I did a lot of household stuff and moved pool tables and other heavy equipment like dressers and cabinets,” said Scott Rehard, a mover with New Berlin-based Schroeder Solutions. “This is just really expensive, historical stuff.”