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Mitchell Tourist Attraction Undergoes ’Corn-Struction’

The remodel of the Corn Palace will feature larger exterior murals, a new sign, custom-designed light-up domes, and a walk-out balcony for visitors.

Fri September 26, 2014 - Midwest Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

This year, in addition to the annual redecorating of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., parts of the Palace will be under ’corn-struction’ as the building undergoes a transformation. The remodel of the Corn Palace will feature larger exterior murals, a new sign, custom-designed light-up domes, and a walk-out balcony for visitors.

On the interior, visitors will be greeted with a new grand entry and lobby and a redesigned box office. For the first time in decades, guests also will be invited to the second floor of the Corn Palace, where they will find an Oscar Howe exhibit space and access to the front balcony. The Corn Palace will remain open regular hours throughout the renovation.

The total project is estimated to cost $7.19 million over two phases. The first phase, which is currently under way, is budgeted at $3.62 million. The city of Mitchell is providing funding for the project through a bond issue.

The contract was awarded to Mueller Lumber, with Dave Epp serving as project manager. Work began on May 26, 2014, and is currently on schedule for an April 3, 2015, completion.

The Corn Palace serves the community as a venue for concerts, sports events, exhibits, and other community events.

“The Corn Palace is decorated with several murals made out of 12 different colors of corn, each framed with native grasses, straw, milo, and sourdock,” said Jacki Miskimins, director of the Mitchell Convention & Visitors Bureau. “A local farmer grows all the corn for the Palace, a local artist designs the murals, and a team of approximately 20 workers change out the murals every year beginning in late-August and working into September (as crops become available). The Palace is never completely un-decorated, as the murals are not taken down until it is time to replace them in the late summer, when the work is a gradual process.”

Miskimins explained that the re-designing process actually begins several months before the corn crops are ready. A Corn Palace Committee meets to decide on the theme, which the artist then interprets into designs for each mural. Once sketched out, the images are projected and drawn onto black roofing paper that replaces the previous year’s murals as they are removed from the building.

“The designs are marked with a code as to where each different color of corn should go, and the decorating crew nails the appropriate colors of corn to the building- like a giant corn-by-number project!” Miskimins said.

The honor of designing of the murals has been done by several artists, including Oscar Howe, a Yanktonai Sioux artist who taught school at Dakota Wesleyan University and was Artist Laureate of South Dakota; Cal Schultz, a local artist; and presently Cherie Ramsdell, a local college art teacher.

“This building is unlike any other building in the world,” Epp said. “There’s a reason it’s called the World’s Only Corn Palace. The Corn Palace is so important to this community and to the thousands of visitors it sees each year, and to work on a project like that has been really fun. Especially since we’re working with a lot of local crews, the pride everyone takes in this job really sets it apart. From the engineers to the architect to the owner and the subcontractors, everyone has worked together so well it’s just unbelievable. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Epp noted that the biggest challenge with the project has been maintaining regular Corn Palace operations during construction.

“The building serves as a major tourist attraction, an events center, and a community resource — particularly for basketball and volleyball,” Epp said. “Organizing the renovations around the continued operations has been tricky, but everyone has worked together to pull off a nearly seamless arrangement. When you consider all the moving parts — the Corn Palace decorators, the tourists [nearly a quarter-million visit each year], the box office, the gift shop, the construction teams, a week full of concerts and a carnival in the middle of August — it seems unbelievable, but everyone pitched in, everyone was flexible, and we’ve been having a great time.”

Epp noted that a total of 50 to 60 tons of concrete was removed from the Corn Palace lobby when the grand entryway was opened up.

“It took a 200-ton capacity crane to remove the large dome, not because of the weight, but because of the size and weight,” he said.

On the exterior, changes will include new domes that can be lit in different colors; improved exterior lighting (like the lights illuminating each mural); enhanced, larger murals; street-level tile on the west and south sides; a walk-out balcony over the marquee; large windows replacing three small murals on west side; and a new attractive opening on the south side.

On the interior, changes will include a grand, two-story entry; a new box office location; a new lobby design; a walk-out balcony bridge; new family bathrooms; a new concierge station; an accessible seating area in the arena; temperature control improvements; and a new passenger elevator.

When the city relocates its offices to a new planned city hall, the current building will be renovated as an extension of the Corn Palace. The first floor, where city offices are currently housed, will be converted into an exhibit space and theater. The second floor, currently the auxiliary gym, will have minor improvements made (air handling, lighting, etc.). A passenger elevator also is being added within the city hall space that will serve both buildings.

Major subcontractors for the project include Muth Electric, Tessiers (HVAC), Mitchell Plumbing & Heating, Prairie Sons (fire protection), Bruce Sign Company, Nagel Painting, Peterson Concrete (new concrete), Palace Builders, Baily Metal Fabricators, All State Concrete Cutting (concrete demo), Design Crete (concrete polishing and finishing), Syverson Tile, and Patzer Woodworking.

“Nearly all of the subcontractors are from the Mitchell community or region,” Miskimins said. “One major exception is MG McGrath, who is fabricating the new domes. Because the domes are such a critical, unique component of the project, the architect pre-approved select fabricators prior to the bid process.”

The original Corn Palace was called The Corn Belt Exposition, and was built in 1892 to showcase the rich soil of South Dakota and encourage people to settle in the area. It was rebuilt in 1905 and 1921. Russian-style onion domes and Moorish minarets were added in 1937, and remain today.

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