Vesterheim dedicates its new Commons building
Welcome home to Vesterheim!
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
“Ti, ni, åtte, syv, seks, fem, fire, tre, to, en!” shouted an enthusiastic crowd that had gathered on a bright sunny day at the new Vesterheim Commons building. Ruth Ann Schultz, Vesterheim board chair, and Chris Johnson, Vesterheim president and CEO, cut the ribbon, and thus began a new era for the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa.
The Sept. 30 ceremony was the culmination of over a week of activities organized to commemorate the dedication of the new Commons building, the realization of a dream many years in the making.
On Sept. 23, Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt visited Decorah to kick off the events. In her remarks at Luther College, Huitfeldt paid homage to the rich legacy of the Norwegian emigrants who came to North America, beginning with the arrival of the sloop Restauration in New York City in 1825. Huitfeldt’s talk was open to the public and included a Q&A session about Norway’s foreign policy objectives.
The minister of foreign affairs is responsible for Norwegian foreign policy, the promotion of Norway’s interests internationally, and the foreign service, which includes 78 embassies, nine permanent missions and delegations, and eight consulates general. The occasion marked Huitfeldt’s first visit to the museum and symbolically underlined the strong relationship that exists between Norway and the United States.
The week continued with two free online events. On Sept. 24, photographer Randall Hyman gave a gallery talk for the exhibit “Sámi Dreams: Portraits of Resilience in the Norwegian Arctic,” now on view at Vesterheim. Then on Sept. 27, Dan York, a lifetime paddler and traveler, presented “Kayaking the Lofoten Islands: Norway’s Craggy Crown Jewels.” Both events were free, enabling anyone anywhere in the world to join in on the celebration.
At the Sept. 30 ribbon cutting at the new Commons building, there were presentations by the Norwegian architect firm Snøhetta and other Vesterheim staff and trustees. Activities followed throughout the day on the entire Vesterheim campus, with refreshments, tours, and entertainment, including Decorah’s Nordic Dancers, Eden Ehm on Hardanger fiddle, and the Luren Singers.
On the following day, Oct. 1, visitors to Vesterheim also got the opportunity to meet silver experts from the Sylvsmidja company in Voss, Norway. Co-owner of Sylvsmidja Anne-Kari Salbu, board chair Heidi Hjellestad, and designer Svanhild Strom set up shop in the Commons to give a presentation about their new Sagastad collection and present the Sylvsmidja jewelry collection. Established in 1940, Sylvsmidja is Norway’s largest producer of silver pieces, both traditional and modern. Their exquisite products are available for purchase in the Vesterheim store and on the Vesterheim website.
During the week of celebration, Vesterheim was pleased to open the exhibit, “A New York Minute: City Scenes by Bernhard Berntsen,” in the new gallery space on the second floor of new Commons building.
Berntsen was a construction worker, sculptor, and fine art painter who was born in Oslo in 1900 and immigrated to the United States in 1919. More than 150 of his oil paintings, crayon drawings, and sculptures are found in the Vesterheim collection. For this first solo show of his work, the focus is on his sketches on newspaper and unique views of the growing metropolis of New York City.
With 7,600 square feet spread across three levels and almost an acre of surrounding landscaped patio, the new Vesterheim Commons building physically links the past and the future, connects the museum collection to the Folk Art School, and enriches the Vesterheim visitor experience for those coming to Decorah or participating digitally through a new video and photography production studio.
The Commons project was part of a comprehensive, long-range planning process with Snøhetta, the renowned international architecture and landscape architecture firm, headquartered in Oslo. It was supported with the work of BNIM; Meyer, Borgman, Johnson (MBJ); Morrissey; and McGough Construction. The results of this collaboration are stunning.
Snøhetta has described the Vesterheim Commons as “a dynamic gathering space for a cultural campus.”
With its soaring wooden canopy to greet visitors to Vesterheim and Decorah, the new building on the corner of Mill Street and Water Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, threads together with Vesterheim’s Heritage Park, linking together present and past.
On a sunny day, a reflection of the large canopy at the park entrance representing the sail of the ship Restauration can be reflected in the large glass windows at the Commons entrance, a reminder of the relationship of the two key areas.
While the Commons building is essentially modern in its design, a nod to the past is seen throughout. In this vein, the public reception lobby mirrors the cozy and sheltered outdoor rooms of the surrounding park.
The Commons was built with locally sourced brick to give it a strong historical anchoring to the life and culture of Decorah. The mass timber wood frame was fabricated in Albert Lea, Minn., and the exterior walls were built of brick from Adel, Iowa.
“The new Commons links the museum collection and the Folk Art School to Norwegian craft traditions through honest and humble materials,” Snøhetta explains.
The abundance of wood structural elements also help to create an ambiance that is traditional, warm, inviting, and, very Norwegian. Wood has always been a building material of choice (and necessity) in Norway, and today, many contemporary Norwegian structures‚ including modern high-rises, make extensive use of wood in new, innovative ways.
But it is perhaps the sweeping circular lines of the design that make the greatest impression on visitors to the Commons, creating a sense of movement or dynamism. The lobby is bathed in light from above by a wood round, eye-like opening. The oculus is surrounded by a flexible multiuse event space.
Circulation areas in the new building create interior connections to the Westby-Torgerson Education Center and Vesterheim’s Folk Art School, as, once again, present and past are connected.
Upstairs, the second-floor gallery feeds the new digital workspaces and offices, including a new study room for the focused observation of Vesterheim’s magnificent folk-art collections.
“As a Norwegian-American company, Snøhetta is grateful and excited to play a part in recontextualizing the experiences, art, and crafts of Norwegian immigrants here in Iowa,” said Craig Dykers, Snøhetta founding partner in an earlier statement.
“We hope and expect that the Vesterheim Commons and Heritage Park will create new opportunities for considering and understanding the experience of immigrants to the United States.”
Above photos courtesy of Vesterheim
Visit Vesterheim’s Strong Roots | Bold Future website for updates on the building and how to participate in and contribute to the project at strongrootsboldfuture.org/blog.
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.