Living learning

Vesterheim dedicates new Heritage Park, where immigrant history comes alive

a cabin in Vesterheim's Heritage Park

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
The Heritage Park is home to the Haugen House, a log home from rural Decorah that dates back to the early 1860s. Haugen House gives visitors an insight into settler life in mid-19th century Iowa.

Decorah, Iowa

On Aug. 21, Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa, celebrated the completion of Heritage Park, an exciting new space on the Vesterheim campus, with fanfare and style.

A brief ceremony took place outside on the Vesterheim campus at the Mill Street Portal. Following the ceremony there was entertainment by the Decorah Nordic Dancers and Eden Ehm on the Hardanger Fiddle and refreshments. Many of the historic buildings were open for touring, and guides will be available to answer questions.

Chris Johnson, president and CEO of Vesterheim, said the latest Vesterheim installment makes the museum even more accessible to the public.

“We had created handicap accessible pathways, new outdoor signage that talks about the buildings, we incorporated some of our folk artists in developing entry portals that are carved, wooden entry portals,” he said.

Deputy Chief of Mission from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C.. Torleiv Opland, was present to offer official remarks and words of congratulations from the government and people of Norway.

The day did not pass  by without special refreshments, thanks to the Decorah Culver’s restaurant, which provided lingonberry frozen custard, a Norwegian delicacy, for the event’s guests.

Vesterheim traces its history back to Luther College in 1877. Luther President Laur Laursen had a bold and courageous dream—to begin collecting everyday objects of Norwegian immigrants. In line with this dream Laursen’s successor, C.K. Preus, created an open-air display beginning with the Egge-Koren log house. That display was eventually moved from Luther to Vesterheim’s downtown campus and continued to grow to 12 historic buildings.

Vesterheim has now reimagined this open-air display into Heritage Park, an important component of the museum’s collection with outdoor gathering spaces for the public. 

Vesterheim's Heritage Park

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Vesterheim’s new Heritage Park ushers in a new era for the Decorah, Iowa-based museum.

Heritage Park would not be possible without some exceptional partners: the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative Urban Conservation Project, the Paul D. Pratt and Marguerite Olson Pratt Fund of InFaith Community Foundation, and Kate Nelson Rattenborg of Decorah. Vesterheim has also received funding from Winneshiek County Community Foundation and Humanities Iowa for interpretive signs.

Heritage Park was designed by Damon Farber, the award-winning landscape architectural firm from Minneapolis, in partnership with Snøhetta, the renowned international architecture and landscape architecture firm with offices in New York City and Oslo, Norway. Heritage Park is part of an overall Master Site Plan created for Vesterheim by Snøhetta. Vesterheim thanks them both for their expertise, guidance, and dedication in creating this awe-inspiring project.

In Vesterheim’s master planning process, there is a shift toward sustainability, and this is an early step in that direction. The Heritage Park plan recognizes a relationship to the Upper Iowa River, which used to run next to the property, and the museum’s continuing responsibility toward it. 

The landscaping incorporates many environmentally sensitive elements. Vesterheim worked with Amy Bouska, Eastern Iowa’s Urban Conservation Program Coordinator, on the grant.

The primary contractor for the project is 2nd Nature Landscaping, Bloomington, Minn., and other contractors include Skyline Construction, Inc., Wicks Construction, Perry Novak Electric, and Stevenson Tree Care, all of Decorah.

Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, welcomes people of all ages and backgrounds to engage in the conversation of the American immigrant journey through the lens of the Norwegian-American experience. 

Vesterheim offers innovative and interactive exhibits, classes, and programs, both at the dynamic campus and park in scenic Decorah, Iowa, and online at and Vesterheim social media. 

For more information on exhibits, classes, programs, tours, membership opportunities, and ways to donate and volunteer, connect at, (563) 382-9681, and Vesterheim, 502 W. Water St., P.O. Box 379, Decorah, IA, 52101-0379.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa is the national Norwegian-American museum and heritage center, with over 33,000 artifacts, 12 historic buildings, a Folk Art School, and a library and archives. This treasure showcases the most extensive collection of Norwegian- American artifacts in the world. Visit