Expanding into the future
Norway House breaks ground for its new multimillion-dollar home
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
On Sept. 17, Minnesota’s Norwegian community came together to celebrate the groundbreaking for the expansion of Norway House, the National Norwegian Center in America. Construction on the $19.5 million project began the following week with a targeted completion date in the fall of 2022.
The Minnesota-Norway connection
Norwegian roots run deep in Minnesota, with the first immigrant settlers arriving in the 1850s. The stream of immigration was steady up until World War I, when wartime conditions and new immigration laws ebbed the flow. But the bond between the North Star State and Norway has remained strong, and by the time of the 1990 federal census, three-quarters of a million Minnesotans were proud to claim to be of Norwegian heritage.
At the heart of the Norwegian community in Minneapolis is Mindekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church, located one block south of East Franklin Street and 10th Avenue South. Next year, Mindekirken will celebrate 100 years in the neighborhood. While the Norwegian and other Nordic immigrants have now been replaced by Latinos, Somalis, and other ethnic groups and is home to the city’s Native American population, the Mindekirken location, with all its history and tradition, was the natural place for Norway House to establish its home.
In the early days of Norway House, the Norwegian consul general in Minneapolis, Thor Johansen, saw the need for a place to showcase what Norway has brought to the world as a leader in environmental sustainability, global education, and peacemaking—values to pass on to future generations. A committee was formed with representatives from the various Norwegian-American groups in the area to assess their wants and needs.
A non-profit entity was founded in 2004, with the vision to connect Norwegian Americans with their heritage and to connect them to Norway today. The need was for a centralized location in the Midwest Norwegian-American community, as well as a destination for contemporary Norwegian art and pan-Nordic government and business relationships.
In 2015, a relatively new bank building at E. 913 Franklin Ave. on the same block as the century-old church was purchased, remodeled, and painted indigo blue, and the Albert H. Quie Education Center, named for the former governor of Minnesota, opened its doors. It has been a bustling hub of activity ever since.
The center is not only an educational facility, where visitors can learn about Norwegian traditions, it also houses an art gallery, a coffee bar, and a boutique filled with Norwegian gift items. It’s a place to convene with friends or to make new friends with its warm, welcoming atmosphere, the feeling of “coming home.” The fundraising campaign around the expansion project was run with the theme “på vei hjem”—“on the way home.”
In 2019, King Harald V of Norway became a royal patron of Norway House. Along with Mindekirken and the new expansion, Norway House will solidify its status as the epicenter for Norwegian activities in North America.
A growing family
Over the years, the programming at Norway House has grown to encompass initiatives within the business, cultural, and diplomatic sectors, with the Business Accelerator Resource Network (commonly known as BARN), the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota, the Minnesota Peace Initiative, and Nordstjernen, a network of young and emerging leaders in the Upper Midwest. More recently, Norway House acquired The Norwegian American newspaper, as part of an outreach that is now national and international in scope.
Leadership, teamwork, and an engaged community are at the heart of Norway House’s success. Christina Carleton, daughter of the late Johansen, was appointed executive director in 2017 to carry on a legacy. A native of Oslo, Norway, Carleton has been steadfast in her vision, with her team rallying behind her all the way. With an extremely active and supportive board, the group was able to reach its fundraising goal with support from private donors and foundations, a $5 million challenge grant from the Minnesota Legislature, and funds from the Norwegian government.
“We wanted Norway House to be a “home away from home,” a place where everyone would feel welcome,” Carleton said. “We want you to get the feeling the minute you walk in.”
Ethan Bjelland, director of communications, underlined that Norway House wants to be an integral part of the surrounding community, accessible to everyone.
Senior Development Officer Rebecca Sundquist explained that the project fundraising began with a community feasibility study. “There was great enthusiasm from those we interviewed and that gave us the confidence to move ahead with the project,” Sundquist said. Some of Norway House’s top donors came out of the study and have continued to give generously to the project.
And while the average tenure for a professional fundraiser in a non-profit entity is 18 months, Sundquist has stayed with Norway House from the very beginning for over 17 years. Executive Director Carleton believes that it is this feeling of belonging to a family that lies at the heart of Norway House’s success.
A “poetic” state-of-the art facility
The expansion to Norway House will be a new Innovation and Culture Center, which includes an events center, a business hub, exhibit space, and genealogical archives. The new building, which will connect to the iconic blue building where Norway House currently is, has been designed by St. Paul-based architect Dewey Thorbeck.
The contemporary cultural center will include floor-to-ceiling natural light and modern Nordic design elements—all meant to retain the feeling of warmth associated with Norway House. There will be intimate, comfortable, and cozy gathering places within the building to retain the traditional, welcoming feeling of coming home.
Thorbeck, who is proud to be of Norwegian heritage, explained that the architectural concept for the Norway House buildings and site is “metaphorically based on water and its importance to Norway, North America, and the world. The geographic character of Minnesota and Norway are similar in that both are the result of glaciers that shaped the land, and when melting, created the rivers and lakes in Minnesota and fjords in Norway.” To reflect this water concept, the Albert H. Quie Educational Center was painted blue, and the new expansion will build on this.
The new Innovation and Culture Center will be covered by an iconic “floating roof” supported by slender steel columns that will extend up through round openings in the roof with tension pipes attached to the roof to appear like sailing ships anchored in a harbor.
The edge of the roof and the cable support structure will be in a blue color to match the older Educational Center. The exterior walls of the new construction consist of ventilated panels in a light gray color to resemble the aged copper on the steeple of the adjacent Mindekirken, linking the new building to Norwegian heritage and tradition.
The indoor gathering place will consist of a reception and interpretive exhibit area for a variety of events, concerts, and conferences in the banquet hall and meeting rooms, including the annual Gingerbread Wonderland, Norway House’s most popular exhibit during the holiday season.
The Bygdelag Research Library will be located on the lower level, with staff offices on the mezzanine level. There will be space for art and sculpture to be displayed in the gathering space along with a “Wall of Honor” that will have the names of distinguished American Norwegians.
Mindekirken and Norway House will share a parking lot for 95 cars. The entry plaza will be etched in a waving pattern of two colors with landscape areas of earth mound islands and birch trees representing the geography and landscape of both Minnesota and Norway. The American and Norwegian flags will be flown over this space.
A new Entry Pavilion with wooden boards resembling a Norwegian wooden stave church will link the existing blue Education Center with the Innovation and Culture Center.
In the architect’s own words, Norway House is “envisioned as a peaceful place of tranquility linking Norway, America, and the world. It will connect the people of contemporary America and Norway more closely together providing an inspiration to those who care about heritage, nature and global challenges, such as climate change, food security, water resources, renewable energy, and wellness—human, animal, and environmental.”
Thorbeck summed up his aesthetic vision for Norway House: “To me, the most beautiful places in the world are those that express a close integration of architecture and landscape in a profound and human way. A beautiful building can evoke an emotional response, but a beautiful building that is part of nature is poetic.”
A day of celebration
At the groundbreaking, there was much to celebrate: the years of planning and a successful fundraising campaign and also a time of healing after the isolation brought on by the pandemic, as well as the riots that rocked the city after the killing of George Floyd. It was the first time that so many had come to Norway House after COVID-19 restrictions had been put in place. As visitors gathered in the parking lot that morning, there was a sense of excitement in the air.
To set the stage, visitors were greeted by the sounds of upbeat music played by a six-piece jazz band. Many had put on colorful bunads and Norwegian sweaters to show their Norwegian pride. Soon, about 200 guests had gathered. Several local dignitaries were spotted in the crowd, including former governor, Albert H. Quie.
The program speakers included: Bob Tunheim, Norway House executive board chair; Christina Carleton, executive director of Norway House; Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey; Eivind Heiberg, honorary consul general for Norway; Jeanne Crain, CEO of Bremer Bank; state Rep. Hodan Hasan (Minneapolis); Jim Erickson, chair, Norway House capital campaign; and state Rep. Dean Urdahl (Grove City).
It was a day of both celebration and commemoration, as those no longer with us were remembered for their vision and commitment, most notably Jon Pedersen, who served as chair of the Norway House board for four years and helped the lead the way for the fundraising campaign, and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, always a strong supporter and friend of Norway House.
“These are exciting times,” said Carleton. “This will complete our campus. We are a welcoming place for all ages and backgrounds.”
Carleton’s sentiments were echoed by Hasan, who underlined how the Somali immigrants followed in the footsteps of their Norwegian predecessors and felt so at home in the neighborhood, honored that Norway House welcomed them to the community.
Eivind Heiberg, honorary consul general of Norway, summed up the significance of the groundbreaking: “With this project, Norway House, I believe, further solidifies its place as the, the Norwegian campus in the Twin Cities and Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota.”
A highlight of the program was when Heiberg read a special greeting from King Harald V of Norway, expressing his “warmest congratulations and best wishes for the future.”
It was all cheers and a sparkling toast before the confetti was launched and the band struck up again. Dignitaries posed for photos, while other guests enjoyed smørbrød made by Mindekirken member Charlotte Breivik and her team. Of course, there was plenty of coffee, cookies, and other treats, many from various food companies represented by Norway House’s BARN program headed by Britt Ardakani.
And no groundbreaking celebration at Norway House would have been complete without an appearance by Nils Nisse, the “på vei hjem” capital campaign mascot, who posed for selfies with the guests. It was a happy day for him and everyone who had come out on this day of celebration, for Norway House had reached it goal and is now in the final stretch on its way home.
For more information about Norway House and its programming initiatives, visit norwayhouse.org.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.