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New Wisconsin archives and preservation building begins to fill up

By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — 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.

Scott Roller, senior collections manager for the Wisconsin Historical Society, shows off a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the basement of the society's headquarters in Madison on April 19. The construction of the $46 million State Archive Preservation Facility is complete. Artifacts are now being moved in, a task that's expected to take up to 18 months. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Scott Roller, senior collections manager for the Wisconsin Historical Society, shows off a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the basement of the society’s headquarters in Madison on April 19. The construction of the $46 million State Archive Preservation Facility is complete. Artifacts are now being moved in, a task that’s expected to take up to 18 months. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

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.

Earlier this month, they shared space on a moving truck for a trip across the isthmus after being brought up from the basement of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s building and sent to one of the most storage structures in the world. Standing near the Yahara River, 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 historically significant artifacts in the state and, in some cases, the country.

But it won’t happen over a long weekend or even a few weeks.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that 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. The structure will also house 200,000 library books and 55,000 archival boxes filled with millions of pages of manuscripts and documents from state agencies and officials.

In some cases, artifacts and documents have been stored in rented warehouses or at other state-owned buildings. But for the Historical Society and Veterans Museum, the new building will free up spaces that were never intended for the proper storage of artifacts. For the film and theater center, a specially designed vault kept at 38 degrees will better preserve thousands of film and audio recordings.

“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.”

The storage building, commonly referred to as “the safe,” is not a museum and won’t be open to the public, save for occasions when there is a public tour or an open house.

Instead, the four-story building is for storage and preservation. 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 building 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 make an appointment to the storage building.

“This building is designed for the collections,” said Matt Blessing, Historical Society 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.”

A Big Boy statue from the once-popular restaurant chain popular and other artifacts sit in the basement of the Wisconsin Historical Society's headquarters in Madison. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

A Big Boy statue from the once-popular restaurant chain popular and other artifacts sit in the basement of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s headquarters in Madison. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The archive and preservation building, which has been discussed for decades, was approved by the state in 2013. It was built on a 5.1-acre site that, starting in 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 building, which was completed in November. Over the last four months, the new structure has been fitted out with movable shelving racks, cabinets and drawers manufactured by Spacesaver Corp. in Fort Atkinson.

The big move began last month. Artifacts were first pulled from a rented warehouse, where 20,000 boxes of library and archival material have been kept in storage..

The Veterans Museum has 25,000 square feet of storage on its first floor, and the Historical Society has a similar space on its fourth floor. The society’s second and third floors are reserved for library books, manuscripts, newspapers 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 artifact or box of documents receives a bar code and is stored according to its size rather than its subject.

“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, which is on Capitol Square, the new archive and preservation building will provide a home for 200 Civil War battle flags. Each will 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 on 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 also allow the museum’s collections to be expanded.

“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.”

The historical society’s 19,000-square-foot basement, 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 has been covered in plastic sheets as a preventative measure.

But the basement has been home to a remarkable sampling of artifacts. 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 bombing of UW-Madison’s Sterling Hal, in 1970, is stored in the basement, along with a full-size harp from the 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 from 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-barks and an aluminum MirroCraft made in Manitowoc by Mirro Aluminum Co. — can’t be moved until some shelving is emptied and removed. The 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.

For the movers, their work differs little from what they might do in a typical job moving someone out of a house, except that this project will last longer and perhaps have 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.”

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