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White Pillars to get a multi-million dollar facelift


DE PERE — At the age of 186, De Pere’s oldest building is getting more than a facelift.
Thanks to a $1 million gift from the David and Rita Nelson Family Fund, White Pillars, home of De Pere Historical Society, is on its way to a multi-million dollar upgrade.

According to McKim Boyd, president of the historical society, the organization’s capital campaign aims to raise $6.5 million.

The building upgrade involves restoring the original 1836 White Pillars structure at 403 N. Broadway, and building a shell composed largely of glass around it.

Not necessarily in that order.

“We are going to take the front portion of the building off, move it aside for restoration, build the building, and place the portion back inside the building,” Boyd said.

The famous white columns and front entryway, which face North Broadway, will be visible through the new glass front.

The space behind the original structure but inside the new structure will be open, with a flexible multi-use area that will include changing exhibits, interactive displays and features that make use of technology.

“Future boards will have total flexibility as far as what they want to do with it,” he said. “One of the things that we don’t want to do is have permanent exhibits. You want to have things changing all the time so people have a reason to come back.”

The transformation will more than quadruple the facility’s size, from about 1,000 square feet to 5,600.
The new, full basement will house archival material, computers for searching the digitized archives, and artifacts.

There will also be space for people will be able to do research.

Throughout the building’s physical transformation, staff will continue an extensive digitization project that the society believes includes one of the largest selections of digitized archives in the state and the largest collection of information on De Pere.

“A large portion… is already digitized and virtually everything else is in the process of being digitized as well. That will allow it to be searchable from the museum and eventually searchable online, once we get that up and going,” he said. “I don’t know anyone that comes anywhere near what we have as far as a museum our size in terms of the digital capabilities we’ve got.”

One reason this small society is farther ahead with digitization than many history organizations in cities twice De Pere’s size is that they started early.

Boyd said they have been at it for at least 20 years, thanks to members Dan and Mary Kay Milquet.

About 20 years ago, Boyd and society member Joe Seroogy started doing photo shows wherein they invited the public to bring documents, images, stories, etc. to be scanned.

“Because that’s one of the fears that people have, that when you give somebody something, you’re not going to get it back,” Boyd said. “We eliminated that because from the beginning, Dan and Mary Kay were in the back of the room scanning things people brought in.”

Over two decades, they scanned tens of thousands of items.

Initially, the White Pillars building met the historical society’s needs.

“But as time goes on, you collect more and more things, and there are a lot of artifacts that we have that are stored on site,” Boyd said.

They frequently turn down donations of items of significance to De Pere due to lack of space, despite storing some things in unorthodox places.

“Right now we have things probably stored at five or six locations which of course makes them not very accessible at times,” he said, adding that they have items at people’s houses as well as in the attic and basement of White Pillars.

About two-thirds of the new basement will be dedicated to storage, which will allow the whole collection of artifacts and items to live under one roof in a climate-controlled environment.

The current small facility precludes many visitors, including most school groups, unless they’re smaller groups of about 10-12 people.

Most school classes are twice that size.

The white Greek Revival building with the eponymous columns first served as the office of Fox Valley Hydraulic Co., which used water power to generate electricity to operate local mills.

Originally, squared timbers rather than pillars supported the porch roof.

A builder bought the building in 1913 and replaced the timbers with the recognizable columns. During its lifetime, the building has served as a church, barber shop, antique shop, and private school.

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