Daily Herald
New museum director takes unexpected career turn
By Susan Dibble | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 1/17/2010 8:57 PM

If Steven Bruun hadn't been boning up on Warrenville's history, the town might have missed celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Col. Julius Morton Warren.

The gala event - complete with party hats, birthday cake and a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" - will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, in the Warrenville Public Library, 28W751 Stafford Place.

Bruun, the new director and curator of the Warrenville Historical Museum and Art Gallery, will talk about the colonel and his influence on the city.

Warren came to the area in 1833 and immediately made his mark. He laid out the plat of the town, named the streets, built a sawmill and hotel, served as its first postmaster and then became a state legislator.

"He was a real roll-up-your-sleeves, can-do kind of guy," Bruun said.

Not long ago, Bruun himself would scarcely have known about Warrenville's founder.

He recalled that after he was hired as the museum's director in late August, he attended his first meeting of the Warrenville Historical Society and someone asked if the society had any special events to celebrate in 2010. "Don't think so," board members said.

But when Bruun went home, he couldn't shake the thought 2010 was somehow significant to the town's history.

He had been reading "The Life and Times of Warrenville" by city historian Leone Schmidt and remembered something she had written about the colonel.

"Col. Warren was born on Jan. 13, 1810," Bruun said. "It was happy happenstance that I had just been reading the appropriate chapter at the time."

Board members quickly agreed Warren's birthday had to be celebrated. He is referred to as colonel, but he actually wasn't a colonel at all, Bruun said. Warren had been a lieutenant in the state militia before he and his family moved out from Fredonia, N.Y. The title colonel likely was self-bestowed, Bruun said.

The Warren Tavern that he built in 1838, which stands next to the Warrenville Historical Museum, was the site of political conventions and balls that drew people from as far away as Chicago.

As a man of action, Warren left few written records of himself. The only son in a family of eight siblings, he was devoted to his sisters and never married.

"As near as you can tell of what he did leave, he was all business. He was an entrepreneur," Bruun said.

Unexpected fit

A 20-year resident of Warrenville, Bruun considers himself a newcomer in a city where a number of families trace their ancestors back to the earliest settlers. Debra Johnson, the president of the Warrenville Historical Society, said she invited Bruun to apply for the job after the museum's longtime director, Carolyn Wondrow, retired and the director hired to replace her moved out of the area.

Bruun, a psychologist, was self-employed as a personal life coach.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would grow up to be a museum director," he said.

But as Johnson described the position to him, Bruun began to see the museum as a place that could use his skills. The historical society wanted someone who could write grant applications, and he had done that.

The museum needed a curator to maintain the database and help upgrade its computer technology. Bruun, a self-described computer and history nut, was game.

"I like cataloging," he said. "Everything about it just felt like a fit."

A former college teacher, Bruun isn't intimidated by public speaking either. He is working on a re-enactment of another of Warrenville's earliest settlers, Hiram E. Leonard, to present at schools and civic events. A businessman and something of a rabble-rouser, Leonard became Warrenville's second postmaster after wresting the position from Warren. Unlike the colonel, he left many written records, Bruun said.

"The sense I get is Hiram and the colonel did not see eye-to-eye," he said.

Bruun also helps the Warrenville Public Library with historical displays, maintains the museum's own library and assists with research questions. He's written an article on Leone Schmidt, the city's longtime historian, for a local newspaper.

"I love to write," he said. "I love working with the community. That's the best part."

Bruun has given up his practice as a life coach, and now volunteers his counseling skills to his church and does other volunteer community work when not occupied with his half-time position as museum director.

Housing history

The historical society's only paid employee, Bruun and volunteer docents welcome visitors to the museum, which is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays from January through November and also Wednesday afternoons during the summer. The museum's roughly 26,000 items include an art gallery, household gadgets of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a circa 1850 schoolroom, American Indian artifacts, and a display on Warrenville's World War II veterans.

Many visitors are intrigued by the building itself, located at 2S530 Second St. Housed in the historic Albright Building, the structure was built in 1858 as a Methodist church and a public school met in the basement.

When the church closed in the early 1900s, it was turned into a nightclub (after the steeple and belfry were removed) and later a candy warehouse. Even the Ku Klux Klan rented meeting space there at one point.

Artist Adam Albright moved to the building in 1924 and he and his sons, Malvin and Ivan, opened a painting and sculpture gallery. After Adam Albright's death in the late 1950s, the DuPage Art League and later two theater companies used the building until it closed in 1977. It was deeded to the city and reopened as a museum in 1984.

Roughly 1,000 people a month visited the museum in 2009 and Bruun hopes to boost that this year to about 1,100.

"The main thing I want to do is increase our visitorship," he said.

Johnson said the historical society also will be working with the DuPage County Forest Preserve District on plans for the Galusha House at the nearby St. James Farm preserve. The small, brick Greek revival-style home was part of a family farm.

"It'll be some kind of learning facility," she said.

Bruun, who lives two blocks from the museum on property that once belonged to Hiram Leonard, isn't able to count the town's settlers among his ancestors but says Warrenville has had a hold on him from the first.

"I've lived all over the place," he said. "This feels like home."

• Do you know someone with an unusual job or hobby? Let us know at sdibble@dailyherald.com, (630) 955-3532 or 4300 Commerce Court, Lisle, 60532.