Large grant secured, Historical Society continues Heritage Center fundraising

The Washington County Historical Society’s Heritage Center will provide a location to attract traveling exhibits.
The Washington County Historical Society’s Heritage Center will provide a location to attract traveling exhibits.

Donations still needed for renovation


Jonathan Young
Stillwater Gazette

The Washington County Historical Society has its gaze locked on the future.

“We don’t look back,” Executive Director Brent Peterson said. “We look ahead, because everything that we have in our collections today will be in our collections tomorrow and 100 years from now.”

Illustrations submitted
Illustrations submitted

That’s why the historical society purchased a building for its planned Heritage Center last year, and thanks to a recently announced quarter-million dollar grant, the future is looking bright. But the fundraising isn’t done yet.

In December, the North Oaks-based Hardenbergh Foundation awarded the historical society $250,000 for the center. Add that to rent from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a $250,000 grant from the Margaret Rivers Foundation to be paid over three years, and other funds raised, and the society will be able to pay off its mortgage early.

“My treasurer says we’re going to have the building paid off by the end of 2015 … a year before MnDOT leaves,” Peterson said.

MnDOT is leasing the 14,000 square foot building at 1862 S. Greeley St. in Stillwater to use as its headquarters for the St. Croix Crossing bridge project, scheduled for completion in 2016.

But when MnDOT moves out, the historical society’s work will be only beginning.

“We still have to renovate it to make it a museum-quality space so we can accept traveling exhibits from the Minnesota Historical Society, as well as the Smithsonian,” Peterson said.

He said conservative estimates for renovations put the cost at $500,000-$750,000.

That means the fundraising is far from over, but historical society board member Becky Pung said having the mortgage taken care of is a relief.

“It’s a lot of work to do fundraising just to raise a couple hundred here and there,” she said. “(The grant) means we can go forward with planning the interior and the displays.”

Board member Holly Fitzenberger agreed and said the project is important.

“I think it will be a valuable asset to the county and to the surrounding areas as well,” Fitzenberger said.

The project has been in the works about eight years, Peterson said, because the historical society foresaw a need for more storage, better exhibits and a larger research space for the public.

Although the society has three other buildings — a log house, a one-room school house and the old prison warden’s house — space is limited. Because the buildings are registered historical sites, the organization’s ability to modify them to meet specific needs is also severely restricted. The new site has no such strings attached.

“It’s not a historic building, but that’s to our advantage,” Peterson said.

Once MnDOT moves out, the historical society can dig in and start the real work on the building.

“We have to create proper exhibit spaces,” Peterson said. Those spaces must meet certain standards to accept traveling exhibits from the Minnesota Historical Society and the Smithsonian. That involves proper lighting, as well as appropriate heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Storage areas will need collapsible shelving, and much of the building will need upgrades.

“Just to design and install an exhibit is an expensive process,” Peterson said.

But Peterson and board members believe it’s worth the time, effort and money.

“Washington County has some great, rich history to it, and I think it’s important to preserve that,” Fitzenberger said.

Preservation means not only keeping history alive now, but into the future, as well.

“We want to make sure that the building is a breathing and living building into the next generations,” Peterson said.

That’s why in the wake of the Hardenbergh Foundation’s grant, Peterson’s message is: “It’s a big grant. It’s a wonderful grant. We appreciated it — but we still need more money.”