Dugnadsånd Bygger Livsreise

Main visitor gallery as seen from the map wall.
Photograph provided by Livsreise–Norwegian Heritage Center

The spirit of working together builds Life’s Journey.

“We have one chance to do it right because we can’t do it over.” Jerry A. Gryttenholm, treasurer for the Edwin E. and Janet L. Bryant Foundation, said this to everyone involved in building and designing Livsreise. He wanted to create something really special for downtown Stoughton, and Bryant Foundation would spare no expense.

“From the top down, the management instilled in the workers, ‘This is a place where it’s not about saving as much money as we can and doing it cheap; this is about doing it right the first time, and you do it right. If it takes a little bit longer, you take a little bit longer to do it right.’”

After educating himself on what was and wasn’t working for other heritage centers in the Midwest, Jerry met with The Kubala Washatko Architects (TKWA) in Cedarburg. “The marching orders were I didn’t want it to look like a log cabin. I didn’t want it to look like the glass-and-steel structures that are going up in Oslo in Norway. But something more moderate. I think what we ended up with is kind of the riverfront old buildings in Bergen, Norway.” Specifically, the German-influenced architecture at Bryggen (the dock) —multiple stories, steep-pitched roofs, unbalanced window placement, and earthen yellows and reds.

The result is Stoughton’s Main Street being bookended with something that, though not a replica of a building at Bryggen, takes heavy inspiration from the iconic Hanseatic heritage commercial buildings. Visitors also experience Norwegian culture in an intimate fashion either before or after walking through downtown’s historic district.

Inside Livsreise, TKWA, Vogel Bros. Building Co., and Zebradog: Dynamic Environment Design created layers of engaging architecture, woodwork, and technology that bring life to the artifacts and stories only to be experienced at the heritage center. Through weekly meetings, everyone was always kept on the same page, creating something both seamless and intentional. Every feature has a purpose, and nothing feels like an afterthought.

One of my favorite aspects is the oversized king-post, straight-strut trusses, marrying traits of industrial and cabin design in a very satisfying way by replacing the tie beam with thick tension rods. The tension rods were actually implemented after concerns were expressed over the walls moving outward through the decades, and what came of it is something that will last for hundreds of years. The use of mortise and tenon joints where the struts meet the king post are also a nice touch, highlighted by three uncut pegs per joint.

Each butternut-wood cabinet and display case is bordered with elaborate machined chisel work, and Livreise’s oft-repeated theme of the åttebladrose (eight-leafed rose) is used throughout. Of the åttebladrose, Marg Listug, manager of Livsreise, says, “That is our trademark, and it’s a sign of protection. Norwegians were Christians, but they had a lot of superstitions.” The rose is expertly made in the northern white maple floor as well, framed and given tone by carefully chosen pieces and clever use of grain direction.

The HVAC system is key to ensuring expansion and warping of the wood is as close to nonexistent as possible. Jerry describes it as museum quality, keeping the humidity below 40 percent year-round. The supply air vents were installed by the windows to prevent frost buildup, and the return air is disguised behind a slatted rail beneath what is inarguably the most prominent feature of the facility.

An impressive 33-panel screen takes up most of the wall opposite the gallery’s entrance. Each panel works in conjunction with the other, and each pixel of the panel was done painstakingly by the experts at Zebradog. At the panel, visitors can interact via a console using touch-sensitive sculptures. Depending on which sculptures are chosen, a different video will play to tell your immigration story starting in Norway and ending in Milwaukee or Chicago.

The majority of people who visit the heritage center are doing so either to hear the stories of immigrants who settled into the Koshkonong Praire as told by their relatives through recordings in the gallery; for a presentation in the 68-seat auditorium, walled with decorative rosemåling folk art and custom tapestries; or to check their genealogy in the genealogy center. However, there are those who come in with no expectations, and it’s not unheard of for them to spend more time with the architecture than with what’s on display. Each tradesperson involved has truly taken part in dugnadsånd, embracing the spirit of working together for something that serves community.

Kyle Jacobson is a senior copy editor and lead staff writer for Home Elements & Concepts.

Livsreise–Norwegian Heritage Center
277 W. Main Street
Stoughton, WI 53589