Catching Up with the Thordarson Boathouse Restoration

About six week’s into restoration work on Rock Island State Park’s historic Thordarson Boathouse and the changes are starting to show.

The Wisconsin State Building Commission allocated $1.4 million for the work in early 2023.  

“The state is embracing the fact that this is one of the iconic buildings in the entire state,” said Brian Grube, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) park manager for both Rock Island and Newport state parks. “They realize the importance of this. They’re showing the public they care about their assets and are not afraid of putting the money in to preserve them.”

The building has remained open to the public while contractor Berglund Construction works toward an August completion date. The main focus is lead-paint mitigation on the windows and doors – both inside and outside – and replacing any rotten wood discovered during the process with a preferred hardwood, such as white oak. 

“Since it’s an historical building, they have to do as much as it was done in the past,” Grube said. 

Secondarily, some masonry work is being done, including tuckpointing and sealing where needed to prevent water infiltration.

The one discovery they’ve made upon scraping away the window and door paint was the wood trim, now white in color, had originally been brown.

The original brown window-frame color is being restored. Photo by Tim Sweet.

“So they’re doing it in brown instead of white so it’s historically accurate,” Grube said. “The goal is to go back to as close to the original as possible.”

Restoration of this kind has not been done since 1964 when Rock Island became a state park, Grube said. 

The blue-limestone boathouse was completed in 1929 for Chicago inventor and millionaire Chester Thordarson – he invented the electrical transformer, for one – who owned the island between 1910 and 1964. The building is listed on both the state and national Register of Historic Places.

“The boathouse was built so friends and colleagues from Chicago and Milwaukee could take a steamer up and dock,” Grube said. 

The Thordarson Boathouse on Rock Island in 2023 before renovations began this year. File photo by Tim Sweet.

Guests could freshen up once they disembarked in the downstairs bathrooms before heading upstairs to the main-floor ballroom, where Thordarson hosted gatherings and entertained guests.

Today, the building is open to the public from Memorial Day to mid-October when the park is open, 8 am to sunset.

“When you come in [to the state park] that boathouse dominates the landscape,” Grube said. “Overall the feedback from the public, even the scaffolding, they understand and really appreciate the fact that there’s work being done.” 

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