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New history museum to tell Wisconsin’s story

On his final night as Wisconsin governor 17 years ago, Tommy Thompson danced the polka in front of a packed Assembly chamber and proposed a $75 million “world-class history center” to be built in Downtown Madison.

His dance moves made the nightly news and appeared in the State Journal the next morning, when he resigned to become President George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

It was a fitting end to his energetic 14 years in office. But the proposal for a new museum never went very far once he was gone.

Now here we are in 2018, and Thompson is again touting the project, this time with another former governor, Jim Doyle. The two men, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, have agreed to lead a $50 million fundraising campaign to revive the idea and make it bigger and better.

The society is pursuing a $120 million, 100,000-square-foot museum that would more than double the museum’s exhibition space. That project would be topped off by $80 million to $120 million for a private development with 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of commercial and residential space.

Even more significant, Gov. Scott Walker has agreed to deliver $70 million worth  additional money if the goal for private donations is reached by Sept. 30.

So get the campaign going, and pitch in if you can. This project deserves broad support. It will help our state remember, celebrate and learn from its past, while creating a new attraction and encouraging private development on the Capitol Square.

As our state motto goes: Forward!

We thank the current and two past governors for their commitment to this worthy goal. We’ll be rooting for success.

The existing Wisconsin Historical Museum is cramped and dreary. And the block the museum now sits on, at the corner of State, West Mifflin and North Carroll streets, is ripe for improvement.

The area has been a trouble spot Downtown, attracting transients and requiring police attention. Remaking the corner into a vibrant attraction would complement the nearby Overture Center, Central Library and redeveloped 100 blocks of North Fairchild and State streets.

Preservationists are assessing the buildings that might have to come down to make way for the project. An analysis by the city should help inform that debate.

But the landmark Grace Episcopal Church and Hovde tower along West Washington Avenue will definitely stay where they are, according to a general plan unveiled by the Historical Society and the adjacent landowners Hovde Properties and Fred Mohs.

The biggest question is whether the nine-story Churchill Building next to Grace should come down. It’s been called the city’s first “skyscraper.” But neither it nor Mohs’ three-story buildings on North Carroll have landmark status.

The proposal should take shape in the coming months. But for now, the general idea looks like a winner.

Beyond more than doubling the museum’s exhibition space, the proposed $120 million, 100,000-square-foot building would provide learning, meeting and flexible spaces fitted out with modern technology. And instead of so many solid walls, the new museum would have large windows with scenic views of the Capitol building.

The total cost, including private housing and offices, could reach $240 million.

Thompson last month called the museum his longtime dream. Doyle envisions “something really special.”

Wisconsin deserves an engaging and inspiring history center to tell its story.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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