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History of the Wisconsin Historical Society Building

Panorama image of the Society Library.
Panorama image of the Library Reading Room taken for the centennial celebration in 2000.
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The Wisconsin Historical Society Building was the result of an alliance forged by Reuben Gold Thwaites, the Society's second director from 1887 until the time of his death in 1913, and Charles Kendall Adams, president of the University of Wisconsin from 1892 to 1902. The Society's quarters in the south wing of the State Capitol were becoming increasingly cramped, and it was abundantly clear the Society needed to have its own facility.

University students were by far the greatest users of the Society's library and they would benefit most if the Society's 170,000 volumes were located on campus. Together the Society and University lobbied the legislature for a building appropriation. On April 19, 1895, after a few failed attempts, the legislature authorized funds "for the accommodation of the said state historical society and such other libraries and collections as may be placed in the custody of said historical society."

The Milwaukee firm of Ferry & Clas won the architectural competition. This same firm had just completed the design and construction of the Milwaukee Public Library. Like the Society building, the Milwaukee Public Library housed the dual functions of library and museum and may well have served as a model.

Despite some financial problems and bothersome delays, the building was completed on schedule. On October 19, 1900, an audience of 900 persons, comprised of members of the Society, State officers and members of the Legislature, members of the University faculty and of other educational institutions in Wisconsin, together with invited guests, gathered in the library's general reading room for the dedication.

To find out more about the building's history we invite you to explore the web site we have assembled to honor the centennial of the building's dedication.


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