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Iconic structures spread across the county tell as much about the area’s history as old books and newspapers. From Scandinavian and Belgian roots to the rich maritime history, Door County’s local architecture tells a story all its own. As you stroll down the main street communities and drive from the county line to the tip of Washington Island, here are a few things to look for.
Rebuilding After the Great Fires
Belgian culture is a strong thread throughout the southern communities of Door County. When the Belgians settled south of Sturgeon Bay, which remains the largest Belgian community in the country, they constructed roadside chapels for worship. While many of those wooden chapels remain today, most were victim to the Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871, the deadliest fire in the country’s history. Following the fire, many chapels were rebuilt in brick.
Right around this time, Sturgeon Bay was exploding as an economic hub thanks to the abundance of rock available for construction. Much of the rock mined around Sturgeon Bay was sent down to Chicago to rebuild the city following the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred on the exact same day as the Peshtigo Fire. Sturgeon Bay’s growth at this time coincided with the Victorian era of architecture. Many homes built in this style remain in the city’s downtown and historic district.
Making Maritime History
When the steel bridge across the bay in Sturgeon Bay was built in 1931, it was the first of its kind. At the time, the 140-foot span of the bridge was the largest in the state. Today, it is the only remaining example of an overhead-truss, Scherzer-type, double-leaf, rolling-lift bascule in Wisconsin. The other area of historic merit lies in the design of the bascule span itself. It was designed by the Chicago firm of Keller and Harrington, both from the former Scherzer Company, specialists in movable bridges.
Historical maritime architecture also abounds in Door County’s 11 lighthouses spread throughout the peninsula and islands. Between the unique Baileys Harbor Bird Cage Lighthouse to the iconic Cana Island Lighthouse, there is just too much history and architecture to explain here. Luckily, local tours and festivals provide opportunities to experience every tower in the county.
While Belgian communities staked out the southern portion of Door County, Scandinavian settlers took to the northern half of the county.
In Ephraim, this is seen in the viking-like village hall, complemented by the Norwegian heritage that influenced many of the Moravian faith structures throughout the village.
In Sister Bay, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant features scribe-fitted log, decorative carving and rosemaling famous to the style. Al Johnson’s sod roof pays an additional homage to traditional Scandinavian homes.
On Washington Island, local residents wanted to build a structure honoring their Scandinavian roots. A group of carpenters finished Stavkirke, a stave church, in 1995. It features dragon heads carved into the wood, and a multi-gabled roof, all taken from simple drawing of a similar church in Borgun, Norway. The Boynton Chapel at Lawrence University’s Björklunden in Baileys Harbor resembles the same style. These two structures represent just a few dozen similar buildings left in the country.
National Register of Historic Places
There are 70 properties and districts on the National Register of Historic Places in Door County and even more on the state register. Visit them all to experience the architecture and history that has made Door Coun
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