Norway Building from 1893 Chicago World’s Fair heads home

A building that was brought to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 from Norway was moved to Wisconsin as a family destination, then a tourist site. Now, it is being dismantled by the sons of the workers who built it and taken back to Norway. 

Colleen Mastony Contact Reporter Chicago Tribune

Norway Building, among of the last structures from 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, heads home

Olav Sigurd Kvaale walked up the old wooden stairs of the medieval-style church. He paused under the gabled portico and reached out to touch the intricate, 122-year-old carvings that surround the massive door.

“This,” he said, his hand on carvings, “is my grandfather.”

A year earlier, Kvaale journeyed across the Atlantic from his home in Norway in a quest to learn more about his grandfather, Peder, a farmer and woodworker who in the 1800s was among a team of craftsmen in Norway who built the church, known as The Norway Building, for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

What Kvaale discovered was not just a valuable gem of family history but a larger story of a building that had traveled on an extraordinary journey of its own. Believed to be one of the last surviving structures from the fair, it had been moved from Chicago to an estate in Lake Geneva — where, painted bright yellow, it served for a time as a private movie house for the Wrigley family — before ending up at a small tourist attraction tucked into the rolling countryside 30 miles west of Madison.

By last year, the building was in danger of being lost. Water seeped through the wood-shingled roof, mice scurried along the floorboards, rot chewed at the foundation.

When Kvaale first saw the building, though, he looked past the signs of disrepair and marveled at the artistry: the chiseled faces of Norse kings and queens, the dragon’s tail that swirled around the exterior entranceway. This, he had learned from relatives, was his grandfather’s proudest creative achievement. He vowed to try somehow to save it.

Now, after rallying support in the region of Norway where the building was originally constructed, Kvaale has returned to Wisconsin, this time with a team of a dozen Norwegian craftsmen. The clang of hammers and chisels echoes across the verdant valley. Piece by piece, windows, wall panels and support beams are painstakingly removed, labeled and laid out on the surrounding lawn.

Norway Building’s former owner Scott Winner shares the history of the church that was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. From Norway, to Chicago, to Lake Geneva, to Blue Mounds, Wis., it’s on its way back home to Norway. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

The Norway Building is going home.

A winding road cuts through the forest and leads to the now-shuttered tourist attraction known as Little Norway.

Operated by the same family since 1937, the quaint attraction had, over the years, drawn thousands of visitors, who came to walk in the gardens, peek into the small museum of Norwegian artifacts or take a tour led by guides in traditional Norwegian dress.

The half-dozen original log cabin buildings on the property had been erected in the mid-1800s by a Norwegian immigrant farmer, who built them, according to Norwegian tradition, on a south-facing slope to catch the warmth of the sun. Each building had been meticulously restored and furnished with Norwegian antiques and artwork.

The most striking feature of the property was no doubt The Norway Building, which stood on the hillside overlooking the valley. With its gabled roof topped by dragons, and ornate shingles crafted to look like reptilian scales, the building gave the secluded property a sense of enchantment, and made a visit feel like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale.

A vintage postcard from Lake Geneva, Wis., shows the Norwegian building from the Chicago World’s Fair on the property of W. H. Mitchell in Lake Geneva. The building, originally bought and transplanted to the property from the World’s Columbian Exposition by C. K. G Billings, eventually wound up in the hands of William Wrigley Jr.
 (Lake Geneva Library)

Commissioned by Norwegian officials for the World’s Fair, it had been built as a symbol of cultural pride and patterned after the stave churches that, in the Middle Ages, dotted the rugged Norwegian landscape.

After the fair, The Norway Building was moved to Lake Geneva, where it was installed on a lakeside estate eventually owned by the Wrigleys. A wealthy Norwegian-American named Isak Dahle acquired it in 1935 and brought it to his summer retreat in Blue Mounds.

Almost as soon as Dahle had erected the ornate building on his rural property, neighbors began hopping a fence to come see it. So Dahle hired a caretaker and charged admission, 5 cents for adults and 3 cents for children.

In the era before Disneyland, people flocked to see the spectacle in the Wisconsin woods. It even attracted Norwegian royalty. Crown Prince Olav, who later became king of Norway, came for a tour in 1939, and his son, Crown Prince Harald, the current king, visited in 1965, according to the 1992 book “The Norway Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.”

Over the years, Dahle’s descendants continued to run Little Norway, which was open from May to October. But as the world became more modern and entertainment options proliferated, attendance declined.

“We didn’t have interactive things or movies or anything like that. Part of the goal at Little Norway was to stay the same,” said Scott Winner, 55, a grand-nephew of Dahle who returned from college in 1982 thinking he’d help out for the summer but fell in love with place and decided to stay. “It was like the place that time forgot.”

Winner lived in a large stone house his grandparents had built on the property. He raised his two children there, and thought of his work at Little Norway as “a labor of love.” He rarely did more than break even, he said, and often lost money.

His wife worked in business development for the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. For years they kept Little Norway afloat in part by selling lumber from their surrounding 270-acre property. But rising insurance costs and taxes, Winner said, along with sparse attendance, forced them in 2012 to close the doors.

Every day for two years, Winner would look out his kitchen window at The Norway Building and wonder what would become of it. Several historical foundations explored a possible purchase. Negotiations with one continued for more than a year but eventually collapsed.

The future seemed bleak in the summer of 2014, when Winner began receiving phone messages from a man in Norway, who said he wanted to visit.

For weeks, Winner ignored the man’s calls. He didn’t want to waste time with tourists. He needed to find a buyer, or The Norway Building would undoubtedly fall into ruin.

Four thousand miles away, in Norway, Olav Sigurd Kvaale was plumbing his family’s history.

As a Christmas gift, an uncle had given him a photo of The Norway Building, and a notation at the photo’s edge explained that Kvaale’s grandfather had worked on the building’s carvings.

Kvaale Googled The Norway Building and immediately found the website for Little Norway. Excited to see his grandfather’s handiwork, he arranged to travel to Wisconsin with a group of relatives.

After he booked the plane tickets, however, he learned that Little Norway had been shuttered.

He called the phone number on the Little Norway website, but no one answered. He emailed a local reporter who had written about the attraction in hopes of getting contact information for the owner but had no success. He even tried the local Rotary Club.

Finally, a distant relative of Kvaale’s in Seattle reached Winner by phone, and convinced him of the importance of the visit. A date was set.

In the following weeks, Kvaale and his relatives worried about what they would find in Wisconsin. The Norway Building had, by then, endured three moves over its 120 years.

When they arrived at Little Norway on a crisp, clear afternoon in September 2014, they found themselves overcome with emotion. Kvaale’s cousin, Sigrid Stenset, wept to see the carvings around the entranceway. They recognized the patterns as ones their grandfather had later repeated in furniture and cabinetry, two pieces of which sat in Kvaale’s living room in Norway. They were certain their grandfather’s hands had crafted the intricate designs.

And inside, they were pleasantly surprised at the building’s condition.

Driving away, Kvaale and his relatives began to hatch a plan.

Back in Norway, Kvaale organized a coalition of friends and began to approach donors and politicians. He wrote about the building’s plight for the local historical society, and a newspaper picked up the tale.

Stave churches are points of national pride in Norway. Built with wooden posts — “stave” in Norwegian — and featuring Viking motifs, they date to the Middle Ages. According to, there were once as many as 800 to 1,200, but only about 30 survive. Today they draw tourists from around the world.

Although The Norway Building is a technically a replica of a stave church, Kvaale and his allies felt confident that, if it were returned to Norway, it would attract visitors, and thus boost the local economy. The building’s vagabond history, they believed, told a unique story.

With the effort gaining momentum, a Norwegian government official contacted Winner in October. “He said, ‘Would you be willing to sell it?'” Winner recalled. “I said, ‘If it goes back to its home, I think it would be a romantic idea. ‘”

A delegation from Norway came to inspect the building in April and, impressed with how well it had held up, decided it was strong enough to move. They agreed to pay the Winners $100,000, with the local Norwegian government and private donors kicking in an estimated $600,000 for dismantling and shipping. Their goal is to have the building restored, rebuilt and open to the public by next summer in Orkdal, the municipality where it was born.

“There are of course people (in Norway) who think this money should be spent another way,” said Kai Roger Magnetun, the cultural director of Orkdal. “But I feel certain that when the building arrives in Orkdal, almost everyone will be proud.”

The M. Thams & Co. factory, once located in the city of Orkanger, is gone, but many residents in the area are descendants of those who once worked there. Locals will be interested in the preservation, Magnetun said, and many are already following the disassembly on a Facebook page and a website,, which means “going home.”

For Scott Winner, whose family has cared for The Norway Building for three generations, the sale has been bittersweet. On a Sunday not long ago, he climbed the hillside before dawn, sat down on the building steps and sobbed.

He and his wife, Jennifer, had their first kiss on those steps. They were married inside, beneath the St. Andrew’s crosses. His parents were married there too.

But watching the Norwegians work over the last two weeks had provided reassurance.

“They’re taking such great care taking it down. They want to save all these little trim pieces,” he said. “They really are saving it.”

On a recent day, scaffolding hugged The Norway Building, which had been stripped of sections of roof, several walls and many of its ornaments. The huge carved dragons, once displayed spewing fire from the gables, lay prone in the grass.

As Kvaale pulls up shingles and floorboards, he likes to think about his grandfather.

“I want my grandfather to know we are taking this building back to Norway,” Kvaale said. “I like to think that maybe he is looking down on us.”

The project is not only about moving a building, he said, but also about honoring the work of his ancestor. His grandfather and many others constructed the building over just three months in 1893 and had worked with such careful craftsmanship that the building has been able to survive a long, meandering journey across two continents.

“This is the last move,” Kvaale said. “When it comes to Orkdal, it must stand there, and stay there.”

It will, he said, finally be home.

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