The Wisconsin Historical Society’s flagship museum is currently located in a former hardware store at the top of State Street. The Society’s leadership has long advocated for remodels of the dated facility.
“Wisconsin has so many important stories to tell the world, but the Society is unable to effectively share them because of the space and technology limitations of its current museum — which opened in the 1980s in a former hardware store,” explains a video posted to the society’s website. “Student groups who visit are crowded inside, and some have to be turned away each year because there simply isn’t enough room.”
As part of his recently announced budget, Governor Tony Evers is proposing about four million dollars over the next two years to begin the process of moving the museum to a new space. The money is just a small cut of the nearly $2.4 billion dollar proposed capital budget.
The Museum will move just a few blocks — to the current site of the State’s General Executive Facility, or GEF1. The building, located on East Washington Avenue, was constructed in the early 1970s and currently houses the state’s Department of Workforce Development.
The Historical Society first announced the move last month. Per the working plan, GEF1 would be demolished to make way for an entirely new development, which would also include a new state office building.
The proposed four million dollars wouldn’t fund the move and construction. Instead, it would go towards the preliminary design work for the new building. According to the budget request, final cost estimates for construction will likely be included in the next biennial budget in 2023.
The Historical Society has already locked in at least $100 million for remodels to its current facility. Per a pre-existing agreement with lawmakers, the state will provide $70 million when the Society raises $30 million in private donations — funds that will likely be transferred over to the new construction project.
GEF1’s prison-like, Brutalist exterior has led some, including the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, to call the building ugly and “an eyesore of concrete.”
But, it isn’t just aesthetic issues — the state’s Department of Administration detailed a laundry list of structural shortfalls in the capital budget request. Notably, the building lacks a sprinkler system to fight fires. In addition to that alarming exclusion, the DOA says the building needs critical updates to its HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems.
According to the Historical Society’s website, a new museum has been on the table for the past two decades. But, despite broad bipartisan support — including from Governors Evers, Scott Walker, Jim Doyle and Tommy Thompson — it’s failed to achieve lift-off.
In addition to the four million for the new Historical Society Museum, about half of the governor’s proposed $2.4 billion capital budget will go towards University of Wisconsin projects.
PHOTO: GEF1, which has been described as “an eyesore of concrete.” (C/O Department of Administration)