Spurred by donations, Historical Society Exploreum is taking shape quickly and is on schedule to be completed in February, open by late April
What a difference six months can make.
Back then, the former Businessman’s Club at 118 N. Franklin St. was a dark, dingy, dilapidated space with tiny rooms and water in the basement.
Today, it is a bright, open space with a soaring atrium facing the street. Fresh paint covers the walls. It’s wired for electricity and computer technology, and the water problem has been solved.
A deck shaped like the bow of a ship is taking shape on the lake side of the building, while crews are refreshing the street-side facade. In the next two weeks, they will be installing column accents at the windows.
Construction work is expected to be completed in the next month, and the job of turning this building into an interactive museum will begin.
“You’re going to see a lot of changes real quick,” said Wayne Chrusciel, who with Mark Dybdahl and Marc Eernisse is spearheading the construction of the museum for the Port Washington Historical Society.
The Port Exploreum is on schedule to be completed by the end of February, in time to train staff and open to the public in late April.
That’s when the NFL draft occurs, which will tie into the first temporary exhibit at the museum — “The Man Behind the Camera: The Life and Work of Vernon Biever,” the story of the Port Washington businessman who was the Green Bay Packers’ first official photographer.
The $2.5 million museum project was first announced by the Historical Society in November.
The Society has received pledges and gifts to cover 85% of its fundraising goal, and is working hard to reach that goal, said Bill Moren, chairman of the museum advisory board.
“I think that’s the largest fundraiser in Port Washington’s history,” Moren said, noting the fundraising includes not only the cost of developing the museum but also one year of operating expenses and a $65,000 reserve fund.
An anonymous donor pledged the initial $1 million for the project, which included the purchase of the building.
Two donors have received naming rights for the building, Moren said. Port Washington State Bank is giving $115,000 — $1,000 for each of the bank’s 115 years in business — and will name the first floor while businesswoman Shirli Flack donated $150,000 and will name the lower level, where the children’s museum will be located.
The museum has other donors who have given similar amounts of money, Moren said, but they elected not to exercise naming rights.
The Port Exploreum will be more than just a museum, the men said. It will be a place to gather, a place that can be rented for birthday parties and corporate meetings and receptions — Chrusciel said he’s the first person to book the space, for a June party celebrating his daughter’s wedding — and a place to teach adults and children about Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.
“If we’re talking about preserving documents and photographs that tell the story of our past, our history, we need to realize the lake is a huge part of our heritage,” Moren said.
When completed, the three-story museum will feature a lower level with an interactive, nautical-themed children’s museum designed to look like the deck of a three-masted schooner, complete with the captain’s wheel and crow’s nest. A variety of interactive displays and exhibits will be used to teach children about the history and ecology of Lake Michigan and nautical life in Port Washington.
An interactive table cut in the shape of Lake Michigan with features illustrating various facts about the lake — everything from real-time images of where ships traveling on the lake are at that moment to the location of shipwrecks to the topography of the lake bottom — originally planned for the lower level will now be on the first floor.
That provides better flow, something that’s important in a relatively small, narrow space, Chrusciel said.
“We’re going to have to be very efficient in our use of space,” he said, noting they have been working with other museum curators to refine the layout and ensure the flow of the building works.
Because of the limited space, Chrusciel said, the museum will direct visitors to the Light Station and Resource Center for additional information.
The upper floors will be home to revolving, interactive exhibits that will tell the story of the community.
It’s not too hard to see the museum taking shape, even though the spaces are still rough.
Original aspects of the building abound, from the timbers used to frame doorways in the lower level to the tin ceiling in the atrium.
“They were taking them out of the building to throw them away when Geri Zehren caught them,” Chrusciel said. “They saved them and used the best for the ceiling.”
The original floors are also being reused throughout much of the museum, including an area on the east side of the first floor where three bowling lanes were once located. Dark circles of wood that designate where the pins were placed can still be seen.
There have been few surprises in the construction of the museum, the men said.
Work is continuing to refine the technology aspects of the museum, which will feature interactive displays throughout, and to define the educational initiatives of the Exploreum and how they will be tied to area schools’ curriculum, the men said.
They are also moving ahead with staffing the museum, Moren said, noting they have a tentative job description for a director.
All in all, the men said, they are on track to create the museum that Port deserves, one that will keep visitors enthralled and benefit the entire city.
“We feel this could have a pretty major impact on businesses throughout the downtown,” Chrusciel said. “It’s exciting.”
Image information: ONE OF THE features of the Port Exploreum is (clockwise from top left) a deck shaped like the bow of a boat on the east side of the building’s upper floor. A work crew worked on the front facade Tuesday, while a worker delivered supplies to the second floor, which will be used for exhibits. Photos by Sam Arendt