In the spring of 1981, The Daily Press of Ashland, Wisconsin, the Evening Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and The Milwaukee Journal all ran feature articles announcing the completion and dedication of a new building for the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.
Described in The Evening Telegram as “one of the northernmost public buildings in the United States to use solar heating and earth-sheltered construction,” the building’s architect Jim Bergeson of Duluth, Minnesota, explained that the location of the building on the side of Bay City Creek and the external appearance of a building that “slides out of the earth” were compatible with Sigurd Olson’s descriptions of wilderness experiences.
The 5,000 square-foot building was constructed in part from red and white pine trees grown on the Leopold Preserve near Baraboo, Wisconsin, donated by Aldo Leopold’s daughter Nina. Other features of the building included large, south-facing windows; overhangs designed to maximize or minimize solar gain, depending on the season; mechanical, garage-door-like window coverings that could be closed to minimize nocturnal heat loss; a massive internal wall designed to capture and hold solar heat; and a wood stove. As a writer for The Milwaukee Journal observed, visitors to the new building were welcomed by the smell of new wood “spiced on nippy days with the scent of a wood fire.”
The official dedication of the Institute’s new building was held on May 9, 1981, from 1 to 3 p.m. Introductory comments were provided by Ed Wagoner, mayor of Ashland; Malcolm McLean, president of Northland College; and Bruce Blackburn, chairman of the Institute’s Advisory Board. Author and photographer Les Blacklock shared personal reflections on Sigurd Olson, and Rick St. Germaine, president of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, spoke on the Native American environmental perspective and challenged “all people to morally address past practices and examine alternative methods of meeting the social and spiritual needs of all of our people.”
Gaylord Nelson provided the keynote address for the dedication, and his talk was titled “Earth Day to 1990: A Look at the Environmental Movement.” As part of the ceremony, Nelson was presented the US Forest Service 75th Anniversary Award by John Wolter, superintendent of the Chequamegon National Forest, and Sigurd Olson was presented with the Wilderness Society’s Robert Marshall Award by Harold Jerry, president of the Society’s Governing Council.
Attendees at the dedication participated by reading aloud from Olson’s essay “The Way of a Canoe,” and the ceremony culminated with the Institute’s voyageur singing group carrying in Sigurd Olson’s B. N. Morris wood-and-canvas canoe and raising it to the Institute’s west wall.
Today, the building dedicated in May of 1981 continues to serve as the home of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and as an important gathering place for the campus and regional community. The south-facing windows have been replaced with high efficiency windows produced by a local manufacturer, the deck has been beautifully rebuilt by the College’s carpenter, and the roof and exterior siding have been replaced, addressing water penetration issues and allowing new insulation to be added. As Tom Klein observed many years ago, the building is a symbol of the Institute itself and a point of departure for its many programs and activities.