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Wayne Hoff and Helga Township Supervisor Mike Sherwood stand outside the front entrance to the Nary School. Hoff holds an image that is a vision of the school, after restoration, as an arts center. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

A school for the arts: Hoff dreams to turn Nary School into hub for arts, education

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News Bemidji,Minnesota 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
A school for the arts: Hoff dreams to turn Nary School into hub for arts, education
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI – Upon entering the ground floor of the Nary School, it is obvious that this is a space well used by the people of Helga Township.


Covered voting machines stand ready for the upcoming elections, long tables and chairs are in place and the upgraded kitchen and appliances strive to be as complete to being a commercial space as possible.

The building has hosted township meetings, families have feted brides and grooms, celebrated anniversaries and held special events. But the township is outgrowing the space in much the same way as District 31 found it was too small for the growing population of grade school children and transferred them to Horace May School. The other school that closed at the time (1972) was Carr Lake School, which now functions well as an arts/commercial venture.

Wayne Hoff recalls attending Nary School for the first and second grade before going to Horace May.

“But my sister Olivia spent eight years here as did my mother and father (Art and Luella Hoff), aunts, uncles and cousins,” Hoff said. “They talked about the early days in the 1930’s and 40’s when my grandfather, Vaner Tangborn, put together the Nary Community Band that played on the upstairs stage during the Great Depression and WWII.”

When Hoff heard that the township board was thinking about demolishing the structure in preparation of building a modern office site, he decided he would try to get the community interested in using the space once again for educational and arts related activities.

He hopes an event Saturday event at the Nary School will invigorate public interest and support in his dream project.

With the assistance of friends from the Bemidji arts community, Hoff will welcome people to see and understand the potential he feels is evident in developing an arts venue in the building. Being named “Friend of the Arts” a couple of years ago plays a large part in Hoff’s willingness to take on this task and move forward with it to the best of his ability.

Starting at 12:30 p.m., colleagues in the Bemidji arts scene to offer refreshments and showcase some shows like Bemidji Community Theater’s upcoming musical “Oliver.” Director Mary Knox Johnson and musical director Karen Bradley will offer selected scenes from the show with cast members starting at 1 p.m.

Pat Mason, director of the Bemidji Chorale, will have a smaller group (Plaza Suite) there to sing, and Joe Vene and friends will be there along with some piano students of Hoff. The fine arts people promise visual displays and tours of the upstairs spaces will be given until the event ends about 4 p.m.

“I have had people in from area theater groups like Cate Belleveau of the Mask and Rose Women’s Theater Collective and board members of Bemidji Community Theater,” said Hoff. “I am hoping that one of these non-profits will be willing to take us under their umbrella so we can start to apply for grants to upgrade and improve the space.”

 Hoff went on to talk about the scenery that was left on the existing auditorium stage upstairs.  There were elaborate and well-attended Christmas shows here in the 1950s.

Hoff believes that most of the people involved in the arts community live in this donut that surrounds Bemidji and the Bemidji trade area extends further out than this, the next town south is Laporte.

There is no organization yet to collect money, just an ad hoc group of people who want to show the public what could be done at the school so the event is free and open to all.

The building is also on a tributary trail off of the Paul Bunyan Trail, which accounts for the picnic benches and open shelter that the township built for public use. The old baseball/softball field is still there, although no formal league still exists. Bikers leave their cars in the parking lot and begin their rides on the trail from this location so there is activity surrounding the building as well.

Hoff and his friends and associates realize that there needs to be extensive renovations on the second floor (the first floor was renovated in the last few years for about $100,000).

The building needs to be made handicapped accessible with the addition of a small lift, perhaps like those seen in local churches. Some feel that the stage should be extended out further as that would still leave room for an audience of at least 200 people. And renovations would have to be made to the existing classroom spaces turning them into costume areas and dressing rooms. There is ample space on the side of right side of the stage for wings (where the actors or performers stand before getting on stage).

All it will take is a good imagination, people who are willing to “get their hands dirty” and financial support in terms of grants, endowments and memberships, Hoff said.

“I am appealing to the public to take a good look at this place and really consider it for an educational/arts facility,” he said. “Please come down to the event.”


If You Go:

What: Open house at Nary School

When: 12:30-4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Nary School south of Bemidji

More information: Free to the public, a variety of theatrical, musical and visual artists will showcase their talents. Refreshments will be served.