Excitement builds as Mulva Cultural Center takes shape

By Donna Schuld

DE PERE – As more and more white steel beams settle into place in the structure that will soon be the Mulva Cultural Center in De Pere, those behind the project carefully monitor their progress with an eye on completion in late summer 2023.

Funded by James and Miriam Mulva, designed by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, LLP (SOM) and being built by Mortenson, the 75,000-square-foot building is expected to have a sizable impact on the De Pere community.

The $95 million project hit a major milestone March 17 with its “topping-off” ceremony, as the last steel beam was placed at the top of the structure.

As is customary, the beam contains the signatures of those working on, or associated with, the project.

This project, however, included another special contribution – the signature of Adem Widmer, a 15-year-old Syble Hopp student with cognitive disabilities.

Aden’s mother, Tasha, said she has been bringing Aden to the construction site since the project began, pulling over on the side of the road to watch all aspects of the process.

“He is obsessed with all things construction,” she said. “We wanted to spend a little bit of time watching the crane being operated. So I called a friend of mine, Ryan Fritsch, with City Wide Masonry, to see if he had any contacts. Unbeknownst to me, things started working in the background.”

With the help of local construction sub-contractors, JP Cullen and City Wide Masonry, Aden was invited to tour the Mulva Cultural Center construction site.

Aden was given the opportunity to sit in several large pieces of heavy machinery he watches operate daily and watch the crane operate up close.

And if that excitement wasn’t enough, Aden also got to sign the “topping-out” beam.

Colin Frey, assistant project manager with JP Cullen, said, “Aden will forever be a part of this project.”

Project background

During the past few months, Mike Van Asten, chief executive officer for the Mulva Cultural Center, said with the steel going up, the community has been able to see the building take shape and come to life.

“As of today, we are on schedule, on budget,” Van Asten said. “I really do think that we have a seamless team between SOM, Mortensen and the Mulva team, so that helps. There’s no question that these are challenging times to be involved in a large construction project, but on the other hand, we meet several times a week, we’re very open and honest and we find solutions.”

It’s a project Van Asten said he’s been involved with from early on.

“I was instrumental in the selecting and hiring of SOM as the architectural firm,” he said. “Jim, Miriam and I interviewed five finalists, and it became apparent to me early on in the conversation that this would be the team that would be the most rewarding to work with, and it has been an absolute pleasure working with the SOM team.”

Van Asten said until signing on to the project, SOM hadn’t done much in Wisconsin before.

“This was an opportunity to expand into a new market,” he said. “Since the Mulva Cultural Center project, they are now doing the new Appleton Public Library.”

Danny O’Brien, senior project manager for Mortenson, said as the beams went up, there has also been a sense of excitement building within the crew.

“They take great pride in being a part of something that will be a focal point for the community,” O’Brien said. “It is going to be stunning when it’s completed.”

The Mulvas

James and Miriam Mulva have contributed to the city they call home, with gifts to St. Norbert College, and more recently with the construction of Notre Dame Catholic Elementary School.

“They built a home, and they are residents of this community,” Van Asten said. “This is their hometown, and they wanted to give back to an area that provided a lot of happy times, both past and now. I’ve had the privilege of working with Jim and Miriam for probably 15 years, on and off. The opportunity to work with them is a lifetime gift for me. I’d like to say that intellectually we challenge each other. We like to push the boundaries . We like to think outside the box.”

He said Miriam is the brains behind the center’s design.

“Miriam could be a nationally-known designer,” Van Asten said. “She is among the best, in terms of picking out color and shape and design and what works, and she loves that part of her life. She is very involved in helping with the project.”

Opening exhibit?

One question Van Asten said he is asked frequently involves the center’s opening exhibit.

He said the community will need to wait a little longer for an answer on this.

“No, we have not selected the opening exhibit yet,” Van Asten said. “There are about 200 companies of various sizes and configurations that develop, market and release traveling exhibitions. I have been meeting with many of those companies, getting to know the players, getting to know the specialties. It’s important to have relationships with a number of these companies, because the success of the Mulva Cultural Center will be largely determined by the ability to offer a very diverse set of programming over the course of every year that will attract different audiences.”

Van Asten said though traveling exhibitions will occupy the majority of exhibit space at the Mulva Cultural Center, artists from Northeast Wisconsin will also be represented.

“There actually will be a number of opportunities for local artists,” he said. “I’ve already been meeting with a handful of them that have contacted me. The atrium itself, when you enter the building, is about 7,000 square feet. I would expect the majority of the time to have some kind of exhibition in that space, more often than not probably art and photography.”

Van Asten said the facility will house a large gift shop, and “part of the design in that gift shop is to feature products from local artists.”

Spirit of the community

Van Asten said he sees the $95-million center not just in terms of what it will do for the local economy, but in the more intangible ways it can lift the collective spirit of a community.

“While there are many organizations that do an admirable job providing food, clothing, shelter and the basic human needs, and I think we all would agree that’s certainly the most important, I think we have an obligation to improve the quality of life, the educational opportunities and maybe just even pleasure,” he said. “A facility like the Mulva Cultural Center, which will be open to people of all ages, which will always have many components of it at no charge, presents opportunities for those families that maybe would find it a stretch to travel to Milwaukee or Chicago to see an exhibition. Every time I meet with our board, I remind them that we really have a purpose far more noble than simply presenting an opportunity to experience the arts.”

Those interested in tracking the Mulva Cultural Center’s progress can do so at @MulvaCulturalCenter on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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