It’s a tribute to the late Janet Bryant and a gift to the Stoughton community.

The new Norwegian heritage center, Livsreise in downtown Stoughton, is the culmination of three-and-a-half years of work, and it’s ready for a May 16 grand opening.

Norwegian for “life’s journey,” Livsreise (Lifs-rye-sa) is the brainchild of Bryant Foundation managers Jerry Gryttenholm and June Bunting, who took the project from a concept on a “blank sheet of paper” in 2011 to the realization of a 15,000-square-foot education center that tells the stories of Norwegian emigrants who arrived in Wisconsin between 1825 and 1910.

It’s been under construction for more than a year and has been the source of much anticipation in the community, both for what will be inside and the effect some people hope it will have on downtown, bringing in new visitors.

While some reporters and community leaders have taken tours of the facility, what’s inside has been largely a mystery for the rest of Stoughton. That’s been saved for the Syttende Mai week grand opening.

The bright, open interior consists of an exhibition hall, a small seating lounge and a genealogy center with about half-a-dozen computers, along with a special exhibits room and a 68-seat auditorium that’s notable for a clean, sleek look.

While it focuses on history, there’s already planning for a second phase, which will bring new exhibits and fresh stories.

That fits the legacy of Bryant, who before her death in 2010 at age 91 was recognized as one of the community’s most generous and genuine residents.

She had formed the Bryant Foundation to honor her late husband, Edwin, one of the founders of Nelson Muffler Corp (later Nelson Industries and now Cummins). She and her husband were dedicated to the Stoughton community, and after her death, Bunting and Gryttenholm felt a strong desire to honor her legacy.“We thought the heritage center would be appropriate,” Gryttenholm said. “Janet and the foundation have done so much for the community, but always very quietly.”

When they started, Gryttenholm and Bunting envisioned a facility that would tell stories of actual families in the Stoughton area. They focused on the southern third of Dane County – the Koshkonong prairie – where thousands of Norwegians settled in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gryttenholm noted the city of Stoughton was at one time 90 percent Norwegian. And although Janet Bryant was of German ancestry, she chose to live her life here and, near the end of it, to stay at Skaalen Home.

He and Bunting didn’t want the center to compete with existing businesses or other educational projects. Instead, their focus was on complementing “the good things that are already here” in the city.

“We’re not about making money,” Gryttenholm stressed. “We want to make sure that the business community understands that. We’re about telling the Norwegian story – the heritage.”

Designing an institution

Gryttenholm and Bunting began planning the heritage center in 2011 by researching similar institutions around Wisconsin and the Midwest. 

They research took them to the prestigious Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, but also to places closer to home such as the Swiss Center in New Glarus. Their first task was to educate themselves.

“We spent about a year-and-a-half wrapping our arms around what other people were doing,” he said. “We looked at a number of facilities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa to find out what other groups are doing and what they may have wanted to do differently if they could step back in time.”

He compared that early research to “going to school to find out what was going on out there and learn from their mistakes.”

Once they had a good sense of what they wanted the heritage center to be, the pair began thinking about building design.

Gryttenholm said in looking around, one architectural firm “kept popping up” – The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc. in Cedarburg.

The firm was responsible for reinventing the Madison Children’s Museum in 2010 and seemed like it would be a good fit with what the Bryant Foundation was looking for. 

In his typically quiet, methodical fashion, Gryttenholm felt the parties needed “to learn about each other before we could get into the building design.”

“We didn’t settle on what we wanted to do with the first try,” he noted. “We went back and forth three or four times. While we wanted it to be Norwegian, we didn’t want it to be like modern Oslo, which has a lot of glass and steel.

“By the same token,” he added, “we didn’t want it to look like a log cabin. Architecturally, we wanted it to fit into the community.”

Gryttenholm praised the architects for putting their imaginations into the red building, which features gabled roofs with steep lines and a spacious appearance.

That uncluttered, polished look is retained in the 2,200-square-foot exhibition hall. The room leaves a lasting impression with its 43-foot-high vaulted ceiling and timber trusses. At the far end of exhibition hall is an 800-square-foot special exhibits room, where temporary exhibits will be on display. 

A life’s journey

Exhibition Hall features semi-permanent displays designed to tell individual stories of Norwegian emigrants.

The bright, airy room is tastefully arranged with Norwegian artifacts – some acquired from Little Norway in Mount Horeb after it went out of business, others donated by families with an interest in history and heritage. 

Bunting and Gryttenholm contracted with Zebradog of Madison, a collaborative group of high-tech designers, strategists and storytellers to build computerized vignettes and wall art. There, condensed immigration stories and images seem to spring to life with the touch of a screen.

“We had the vision,” Gryttenholm said. “Their job was to help us do it.”

The hall has four distinct stations that combine to accomplish the mission of Livsreise.

One station, Emigration Movement, allows visitors to discover the history behind the emigration that brought thousands of Norwegians to American at the turn of the 20th century. The mixed-media exhibit examines the social and economic conditions that contributed to the mass emigration.

A second station, Emigrant Storybooks, immerses guests in the stories of personal journeys compiled from first-hand accounts, letters and family interviews.

The Cultural Heritage station explores the cultural roots of Norwegian-American heritage, including the performing arts and traditional customs at interactive kiosks.

The final station, Map Your Journey, allows visitors to virtually create a scenario and travel from Norway to the U.S. The station includes images of Norwegian landscapes and maps your route across the Atlantic in a vessel of your choosing. Many emigrants to Wisconsin traveled up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes and then on to Milwaukee or Chicago, from where they traveled overland to their destinations.

An exhibit called “Sacred Symbols” is on display in the Special Exhibits room. On loan from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, the exhibit features artifacts including hand-painted trunks, intricately decorated musical instruments such as a hardanger fiddle, tools and linens.

The center’s small genealogy area allows it to partner with the Naeseth Library in Madison.

Partnering with the library and other Norwegian heritage entities – such as the Sons of Norway Mandt Lodge – will be a big part of the center’s mission in fostering knowledge and appreciation of that heritage.

Community impact

Gryttenholm said there’s more work to accomplish at the heritage center.

In what he calls the second phase of the project, “we’ll start on the future because as people come and see the stories through the technology, we want to have fresh stories available in the permanent exhibit area and also start working on what we’re going to have for the extemporary exhibit.”

There’s no timeline for the secondary exhibit, and it will “be a learning experience, but we’re going to start working on it right away,” he said.

He sees that has his long-term role at the center.

“I won’t be there working with the employees on a day-to-day basis with people coming through,”he said. “My place will be to make sure that the exhibits or the genealogy or the auditorium with the media player with the videos and all that – I’ll continue to work on all of that.”

His hope is that the heritage center will help Stoughton to become a destination for visitors instead of a place they simply pass through on their way to Madison.

He said Stoughton’s businesses can help accomplish that goal, as well.

“I hope the downtown business community realizes that they have a part to play in this, too,” Gryttenholm said. “Part of our success will come from them stepping up and doing more themselves.

“That’s what we’ve done here. We’ve stepped up to the plate in terms of helping the community become more of a destination place. But we’re not the answer – the community itself is the answer.”