From the time the Milton Historical Society secured the Milton House property following the 1948 collapse of the Goodrich Block, some within the organization promoted the distant dream of one day recreating the fallen wing as an addition to the 1844 stage coach inn-turned museum.
Long considered little more than a pipe dream, an addition built on the original footprint of the Goodrich Block became a reality 53 years after the Milton House opened for tours as a museum in 1954.
Bolstered by the museum’s 1998 designation as a National Historic Landmark, the historical society went to work on an ambitious fundraising mission to fund an addition to the museum. Since opening the museum, the historical society faced challenges relating to inadequate archive, research and office space. Also, the nature of the existing grout structure limited the museum’s operation to warm weather months between May and September and the society long envisioned a year-round facility.
Many of the museum’s long-standing deficiencies were detailed and legitimated in the extensive Historical Structures Report on the Milton House produced in 2000 by Isthmus Architecture. Data in hand, the historical society began to fund its dream to recreate the wing as part of an ambitious project to add needed space for offices, archives and collections. The project also sought to fulfill the dream of a year-round museum.
When Dave McKay took over as Milton Historical Society director in 2002, he began outlining the serious needs and deficiencies of the museum and the organization that could be addressed by proper restoration and the addition of badly-needed space. The detailed needs provided by McKay ranged from inadequate archival space to handicapped accessibility.
Eventually McKay and the society’s board of directors came up with a plan that would solve many of the issues in one fell swoop. The society would restore the Milton House Museum and connect it to a new two-story addition that visually would be a facsimile of the original Goodrich Block. Total cost of the multi-phased project would be about $2.4 million.
Raising that sum in a relatively small town was a daunting task but not nearly as difficult as weathering the bureaucratic and regulatory storm that blew in from the nation’s capital. A multitude of well-intentioned guidelines have been written to protect U.S. history and the concept of building a new addition and attaching it to a National Historic Landmark raised red flags from Milton all the way to the Atlantic coast.
McKay said at the time, the task of navigating rules and regulations was “mind boggling.”
“We had to coordinate federal, state and local agencies stretching from Washington D.C. to Omaha, Nebraska,” McKay told the Milton Courier in 2007. “Each of which controlled some portion of the project and some of which required us to do things that other agencies flatly forbid us to do.”
The largest hurdle came not from Washington but the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in Madison. A January 2002 letter to McKay from the SHPO stated, “The only acceptable treatment of the addition in the proposed location, would be an accurate replication of the pre-existing wing that collapsed in 1948.”
In other words, the new wing, if attached to the existing museum, would have to be divided into five equal sections on the two floors and basement in the similar fashion as the original Goodrich Block. The mandate would have dramatically inflated costs and rubbed against the society’s vision for providing large open spaces for a community room and archive library on the second floor; offices and a lobby on the main floor; and collection storage in the basement.
Many letters later, the society and SHPO arrived on a compromise that allowed the new addition to be constructed on the footprint of the original block.
Perhaps the biggest compromise concerned visual details on the new addition’s facade. In what appeared to be a bit of a show of muscle, SHPO gave its reluctant approval of the addition. The agency went on to say, however, that it had concerns visitors might mistake the new construction for the original building. As ridiculous as that may seem nearly 20 years after the completion of the project, the SHPO dictum led to restrictions in a covenant that forbids, for example, wood doors, porches or overhangs.
The addition was six years in planning and construction when on Oct. 6, 2007. The Milton Historical Society hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new wing. Hundreds of people gathered to take part in the celebratory ceremony that featured local actor Michael Chase’s portrayal of Joseph Goodrich while cutting the ribbon on the new wing.
The addition has fulfilled the dream of the Milton Historical Society for a year-round facility providing adequate space for offices, archives, a lobby, library and community room.
The addition has also facilitated the ability of museum staff to continue and expand research into the role Joseph Goodrich and the Milton House played in the Underground Railroad. In 2018, under the guidance of director Kari Klebba, an updated tour narrative was written and implemented to better tell the abolitionist history of Goodrich and the Milton House and efforts to assist freedom seekers. Much of the updated tour narrative was based on newly-discovered information about Andrew Pratt—the only freedom seeker known by name to be cared for at the Milton House in the 1860s.
Also in 2018, the Milton Historical Society commissioned muralist Larry Schultz and mosaic artist Connie Bier to collaborate on a three-story stairway art project that poignantly portrays the envisioned plight of freedom seekers.