AP NEWS

Visitor center to open Sunday

May 16, 2019

Citizens will have a chance to dive deeper into Watertown history at the new Watertown History Center built next to the Octagon House.

The Watertown Historical Society will host an open house and dedication of the history center that was built this past winter on Sunday from 1-3 p.m.

Ken Riedl, a Watertown historian and society board member, donated $240,000 for this project. He said some years ago the society realized it had a lot of artifacts and he wanted to help better display their collection and preserve it.

“The thought is if one is blessed and one can do something good or worthwhile, why wait?” he said when asked why he gave the money. “Some people wait until they’re dead and they hope something good will happen with whatever is left behind.”

He added that it was gratifying and rewarding to see how the money was used. The history center was built over the former tourist center, using its foundation.

“When Ken announced his gift 4 1/2 years ago, we talked for a long time about what would be the best way to honor that gift and what would be the most effective use for the historical society,” said Melissa Lampe, president of the Watertown Historical Society.

Lampe said there were various ideas for this project such as remodeling the former building or building it on some land they owned on Concord Avenue.

“What it came back down to was what’s the most economical thing we could do that we could still manage long-term because we are primarily a volunteer-based organization,” she said.

The interior of the facility is done, the society is waiting for exterior signage and the landscaping is in progress.

In addition to displays of artifacts, there is also a gift shop. The facility can also be used as a venue for hosting events, such as weddings, baby showers and small business meetings which Lampe said will be a source of revenue to support the Octagon House.

“It’s a distinctive-looking building,” Riedl said. “We didn’t want to create anything too imposing to take away from the Octagon House.”

Another feature is the copula, or house lantern as Riedl calls it, on top of the building.

The history center is already filled with historical artifacts and Watertown memorabilia. When asked which one was his favorite, Riedl replied that it was like asking him which child was his favorite.

“What I enjoy most though is going through and identifying more so the pictures, the time and place and trying to relate any other information we have linked to that,” he said.

The artifacts are placed in the basement. There are two rooms where the society keeps the most precious items. In case of a fire, the most valuable items are in a fireproof room.

The first theme the history center will show is America’s first kindergarten, which began in Watertown and was founded by Margarethe Meyer Schurz.

“That’s a story we want to get out more,” Riedl said.

The society plans to have rotational displays at the history center. Riedl said the society is thinking of having displays related to elections next year with it being a presidential election year in 2020.

He said it will take about six months to get new themes ready at the history center.

“I think we have a feast of things to choose from,” Riedl said.

“We’re so excited to have a space that can really showcase our collections that don’t often see the light of day,” Lampe said.

A screen monitor is mounted on the wall for slideshows of photos or video.

The history center also has a model of the Octagon House, which was donated by the Reandeau family.

“We are so grateful for Ken’s visionary gift to the Watertown Historical Society,” Lampe said. “The new Watertown History Center has exceeded all of our expectations and we’re so proud and excited to share it with the community.”