top of page



Vesterheim Commons


Decorah, Iowa, United States

September 2023


Craig Dykers (Partner in Charge)


Matt McMahon (Director), Chad Carpenter (Project Leader), Kate Larsen (Director), Nicholas Mercado (Designer II)




Michael Grimm


Snøhetta’s master plan for Vesterheim, completed in 2019, set in motion a unified campus composed of historic structures, outdoor classrooms, and revitalized commercial buildings set within a wooded landscape. In addition to offering a new public green, Vesterheim’s Heritage Park creates a dramatic setting for year-round public access to a variety of structures brought to Decorah from across the Upper Midwest region.

Heritage Park’s urban woodland, inspired by the surprisingly similarities of the Driftless region of Northeastern Iowa and the wooded landscapes of Norway, extends throughout the outdoor spaces, bringing together two landscapes on the site. Here, plantings frame woodland clearings to provide obvious thresholds and edges defining Vesterheim’s grounds. In turn, The Commons’ outdoor classrooms and interpretive spaces are framed by diverse regional plant species intended to adapt and evolve alongside the institution and its programs.

Built using locally sourced brick, wood structural elements, and textured concrete walls, The Commons links the museum collection and the Folk Art School to Norwegian craft traditions through honest and humble materials. This tactile and time-honored sensibility extends to skillful forestry practices necessary to nurture Heritage Park into the future.

With its mass timber wood frame fabricated in Minnesota and exterior walls built of brick from Iowa, The Commons extends a long tradition of using local materials to give shape to the life and culture of Decorah. The project’s distinctive yet respectful outward appearance creates multiple opportunities for Vesterheim visitors to experience and appreciate Decorah’s downtown architecture and the region’s verdant landscapes.


A new 8,000 square-foot building, known as The Commons, and collection of outdoor spaces, establish a dynamic new entry point and gathering space for a cultural campus containing a museum, folk art school, and other community-oriented facilities. Aside from anchoring the site, the new Vesterheim Commons project threads together Vesterheim’s Heritage Park with Water Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Marked on the street by a soaring wooden canopy, the new building’s public reception lobby mirrors the cozy and sheltered outdoor rooms of the surrounding park. The lobby is bathed in light from above by a wood oculus while a flexible event space and new circulation areas create interior connections to the Westby-Torgerson Education Center and Vesterheim’s Folk Art School. A second-floor gallery feeds the new digital workspaces and offices, including a new study room for the focused observation of Vesterheim’s astounding collections.

The design of the Vesterheim Commons draws on elements of Norwegian culture. The welcoming canopy provides a protected and highly visible point of entry that is inspired by well-known boat designs, including the Colin Archer boat from Risør and the Restauration craft that first landed in the US in 1825. The timber frames with concrete footings harken back to the stone foundations of the Norwegian “stabbur,” traditional storehouses. The textured concrete was inspired by the work of Erling Viksja, the architect of the Norwegian national government building, known as the Y-block. Inside, the oculus resembles Saami tents, known as “Lavvu.”


Construction on The Commons began in March 2022 and the building opened its doors to the public in September 2023.

Flexible upper-level galleries, including state-of-the-art digital facilities and a new production studio, create spaces where visitors can explore a rich collection of artifacts and artworks. The project allows Vesterheim to draw in groups from around the country so that new stories can be told.

The community has been thrilled to have a new space that not only links the past and the future, but also connects the museum collection to the Folk Art School. This connection enriches the Vesterheim visitor experience for those coming to Decorah or participating digitally through a new video and photography production studio.

bottom of page