Two-year, $18M renovation ahead of Cultural Heritage Center in South Dakota's capital

The center, which houses the South Dakota State Historical Society's archives, museum and offices, is getting its first set of major expansions and repairs since the complex was unveiled in 1989.

Museum Director David Grabitzke walks through the shelves of the South Dakota State Archives during a tour on April 17, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — Rows of documents housing the finer details of South Dakota’s history — in one section, early 1900s tax records from each of the state’s counties are lodged in thick books with ornate bindings — populate the cool gray shelves of the state archives.

But these endless lines of stacks are more see-through than usual, as workers trudge through the monumental task of moving the state’s collections to a temporary home as the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre enters a two-year, $18.8 million set of renovations starting in May.

One reason for the modification is quite simple, according to Museum Director David Grabitske.

“The short answer is history piles up,” said Grabitske, who is nearing one year in South Dakota after stints with state historical societies in Minnesota and Texas. “It never stops.”

The hundreds of shelves stand about 10 feet tall; however, the ceiling of the room stretches much further, and initial plans for the space envisioned shelves that climb to the very top, making ample room for the 12,000 and growing cubic feet of records stored in the archives.


The main limiting factor to this idea is an important one: the floor as currently constructed wouldn’t be able to bear the immense weight all in one spot, a quirk attributable to the Cultural Heritage Center’s design.

First conceptualized in 1986, the center sits inside the rolling hills overlooking the South Dakota State Capitol: it draws its unique shape from the earth lodges of the Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa Indians as well as the pioneer prairie dugouts of early frontier settlers.

Because of this vision, the architecture of the building is unusual, too: the floor sits on pillars that range from 30 to 80 feet tall along the slope of the hill, which varies in its material foundation from shifting sands to more sturdy shale.

The structure was officially dedicated in November of 1989 as part of the state’s centennial finale.

Instead of a complete rebuild 30-plus years later, the historical society is adding some 3,000 square feet of storage space on the complex’s northeast side and a lodge in front dedicated to educational programming.

The other major part of the project includes refurbishing the roof: checking it for structural soundness and replacing the soil on top, which helps the building remain climate-controlled and fends off moisture.

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A rendering of the renovated Cultural Heritage Center set to open in 2025. The $18 million refurbishment will keep the look of the center intact while adding educational programming and storage space.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

The archives are not the only part of the complex nearly emptied; the administrative offices have been picked apart to continue the agency's off-site work, and most of the artifacts in the historical society’s museum collection have made their way into numbered wooden boxes.

The museum’s interior will get a makeover, too. And for much the same reason.


“This exhibit was designed for 1740 through 1950,” Grabitske said. “Lots of history has happened since.”

The new museum interior will also be “updateable,” he said, pointing to an obelisk donning the history of George Custer’s 1874 exhibition into the Black Hills. After the renovation, displays like these will not have information inscribed directly on them, meaning curators will be able to mix and match exhibits more easily moving forward/

The building-wide renovations — funded with around $13 million in state dollars and filled in with fundraising by the Historical Society Foundation — are scheduled to finish in 2025, in time for the nation’s 250th birthday the following year.

For Grabitske, upgrading the space is about keeping a promise that stretches back to the pre-statehood government in the Dakota Territory, which created the Old Settlers Association of Dakota Territory in 1862, a precursor to the Department of History and finally the South Dakota Historical Society.

“History is a future-oriented activity. We're always thinking about the future,” he said. “In fact, just the fourth act of the territorial legislature was to create the society, even though there was almost no history yet of the political entity they had formed.”

While the center is closed to the public until 2025, the state archives will continue to provide research services via mail, email or phone requests, and parts of the historical society’s collections will head out on loan, with “opportunities to see museum exhibits on display around the state in the coming months,” according to a March news release.

“We have to think about what our priorities are, especially considering the threats we face around the world,” South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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