The Watertown Historical Society is in the process of creating something brand new to showcase what is old, and wonderful, about Watertown. Starting in early October, the circa 1970 Gladys Mollart Tour Center on the grounds of the Octagon House Museum will be demolished, and a new multifunctional visitor center will be constructed in its place. This project is made possible through a generous gift provided by Watertown historian Ken Riedl, who is a longtime member of the society's board of directors.
In 2014, Riedl pledged to donate $220,000 to the historical society to "improve the manner in which its archives are housed and to provide a platform in which to display and promote artifacts of Watertown history." The board spent three years brainstorming the most effective way to utilize Riedl's extraordinary gift and ultimately decided to pursue the reconstruction of the outdated museum visitor center.
The existing visitor center lacks handicap-accessible restrooms and one-half of the main level is occupied by a caretaker apartment which is no longer in use. The society's archives and collections that are housed in the lower level of the visitor center also require reconfigured space to be properly stored and maintained.
In 2017, the board hired Kontext architects of Sun Prairie to facilitate the reimagining of the visitor center into a new center for local history where the society could hold special events, make its archives accessible for public research, and develop new and ever-changing historical artifact and photo displays. In addition, the society also plans to create a touch and play area within the new visitor center where children can handle replicas of toys originally used during the early days of the kindergarten movement. The first kindergarten class in America was held in Watertown in 1856. The structure that housed those early classes was relocated to the museum grounds in 1956 and is open for viewing.
After much discussion and quite a few revisions, the board voted in May to approve design renderings of the proposed new structure and in July hired RJ Construction of Watertown to serve as general contractor for the project. The reconstruction will consist of the demolition of the first floor of the existing visitor center, starting the second week in October. A new "panelized" structure is being built in a climate-controlled facility by Windsor Building Systems of Madison and will be assembled onsite in early November. The new structure will be built on the existing building foundation.
In addition to the building reconstruction project, the board is exploring options for archival storage and attractive display stands and cabinetry to enhance the museum visitor experience. The board also wishes to raise $50,000 in conjunction with this project to create a designated fund for future museum improvements and operating expenses. The endowment campaign has been kick-started with a generous $15,000 grant from the Joseph and Sharon Darcey Foundation.
"Ken's generosity to the museum, both through this wonderful gift and the countless hours he spends sharing and promoting local history on Facebook and the society's website, is just extraordinary," said Melissa Lampe, board president. "We are very excited about the plans we've developed for the new visitor center and we believe that this transformation will enable the museum to remain relevant and viable for many decades to come. We are also very grateful to Joseph and Sharon Darcey for their continued financial support of the museum."
Lampe said the main floor of the new visitor center will feature a ticket sales and gift shop area with adjacent restrooms. A new entrance for this space will be created on the west side of the building. She said the society would like to develop a short video for guests to watch about the Octagon House before starting their tour, which could be viewed in this area. She said the portion of the main floor currently occupied by the apartment would become space to hold rotating exhibits and special events -- such as wedding and baby showers -- with a seating capacity of 40 people.
The lower-level, Lampe said, will be redesigned to make better use of the existing space for collections management and the housing of the society's precious photo and paper archives.
Riedl shared that throughout his many years of involvement with the historical society, he identified two areas that he most desired to see improved.
"The first was the need to have a new ground level exhibit area for rotating displays of society holdings within a multipurpose space that would also include a visitor welcoming area and ADA facilities," he said. "The second was the need for an enhanced archival storage and reference resource area in the lower level."
"After thoughtful consideration of the matter over several years I am as pleased as can be in that our board has approved plans to accomplish both needs by means of a new facility built upon the foundation of the current building," Riedl said. "The new facility will allow the society to expand upon its worthy mission by building upon the foundation created over time by our founding members, previous board members and all those who favored the society by means of volunteering and/or financial support."
Jim Braughler, board vice president, said Riedl's gift is a "once in a generation" opportunity for the historical society.
"Once in a generation does an organization receive such a grand and gracious gift like the Watertown Historical Society received in the wonderful donation from our long-term member Ken Riedl," he said. "We will long remember his generous bequeath to all of Watertown, and we are excited to see it put to use in our new visitor center. Future generations will continue to benefit from our dear friend."