A walk through time at Vesterheim’s Heritage Park
Where past and present converge
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 College to Vesterheim’s downtown campus and continued to grow.
In recent years, Vesterheim reimagined this open-air display into Heritage Park, an important component of the museum’s collection. After many years of work, on Aug. 21, 2021, Vesterheim celebrated the public dedication of the new open-air museum.
Heritage Park includes 12 historic buildings in an open-air setting. The buildings depict the story of immigration, showcasing life in Norway in the 1800s and then life for immigrants in America.
The park is a forested area, interspersed with glade-like openings that act as outdoor rooms. There is a welcome patio that includes a brick outline of the Restauration, the first ship to bring Norwegian immigrants across the Atlantic. There is a timber frame meeting area for groups and Folk Art School classes, as well as an outdoor stone amphitheater for performances. Carved portals mark the entrances to the park and visitors are invited to wander through time, past and present.
Vesterheim’s Heritage Park incorporates the Nordic appreciation for nature and outdoor living. Heritage Park better connects Vesterheim to the Decorah community and helps the museum continue to share stories that will inspire and touch many generations to come. This exciting project not only enhances museum programming, but it also serves as a welcoming and accessible community gathering space as well.
The design uses a Norwegian forest-and-glade concept, with extensive tree plantings surrounding a scattering of open areas for public gatherings, the interpretation of historic buildings, educational functions, and folk-art classes. There is even a small amphitheater for performances. Heritage Park’s pathways are in compliance with ADA accessibility standards.
Heritage Park was designed by Damon Farber, an 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. Heritage Park is part of an overall master site plan created for Vesterheim by Snøhetta.
In the master-planning process for Heritage Park, Vesterheim made a shift toward sustainability. The Heritage Park plan recognized Vesterheim’s relationship to the Upper Iowa River. The river used to run next to Vesterheim’s property, and there is a continued responsibility toward it.
The landscaping of the park incorporates many environmentally-sensitive elements, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative (WQI) Urban Conservation Project. Vesterheim worked with Amy Bouska, eastern Iowa’s urban conservation program coordinator, on the grant.
As the grant outlined, the plans for Heritage Park implemented four primary practices to transform a currently underutilized, traditional mowed lawn into a densely planted, tree-covered landscape with features that improve filtration, reduce nutrient and sediment runoff, and demonstrate sustainable storm-water management.
These practices include soil quality restoration, native landscaping, a bioretention cell, and permeable pavers. Through successful implementation and maintenance, these practices demonstrate the importance of reducing negative impacts contributing to the impaired water conditions of the nearby Upper Iowa River.
Heritage Park would not have been possible without some exceptional partners—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. Vesterheim also received funding from Winneshiek County Community Foundation and Humanities Iowa for interpretive signs.
The primary contractor for the project was 2nd Nature Landscaping, Bloomington, Minn., and other contractors included Skyline Construction, Inc., Wicks Construction, Perry Novak Electric, and Stevenson Tree Care, all of Decorah.
To learn more about Vesterheim’s Heritage Park, visit vesterheim.org/exhibits.
All photos courtesy of Vesterheim
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.