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Exterior work is well underway downtown on the former Wells Fargo building, which will be renovated to house the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. With exterior walls removed, the three old businesses from 1917 store fronts are visible, Bemidji Supply Co., Schneider Bros. Co. and Northern National Bank. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Work beginning to renovate old Wells Fargo building in downtown Bemidji

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In 1965, Don Larson signed his name on the outside of the former Northern National Bank in downtown Bemidji. His signature was among several surprises recently uncovered as construction crews began the process of renovating the former Wells Fargo building in downtown Bemidji.

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"This is like uncovering history," said Nancy Vyskocil, the president of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, which has purchased the building and is converting it into its new headquarters. The NMF is a public community foundation serving Beltrami, Clearwater, Hubbard, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties.

The business community was invited Thursday evening for a sneak peek at the renovations underway and to view the vision for the building, the exterior of which is being returned to its historic roots.

"We're really excited about it," said Ken Cobb, the president of the Downtown Development Authority. "I think the general consensus is that it's pretty cool that they will be restoring the historic look of those buildings."

The NMF, now located on Technology Drive just past Beltrami Electric, has for three years been considering its future needs. As it weighed either an expansion or a relocation, Vyskocil said the foundation started looking at the bank, originally build as the Lumberman Bank, Wells Fargo vacated the building last year.The NMF now employs 21 in about 5,000 square feet in its current facility, built in 1999. An examination into its operation determined the foundation would need about 11,000 square feet for its work. The former Wells Fargo building will meet that and more - it has between 12,000 and 14,000 square feet available on its first floor.

The new site will meet the foundation's 25-year growth plan, Vyskocil noted.

"It's going to have a big impact on our restaurant, our shops downtown," Cobb said. "This is going to be great for our downtown."

The exterior of the building has gone through multiple transformations over the years. The plan is to return it to a 1950s-era look, offering the appearance of multiple storefronts. Vyskocil said this will bring it in scale with other downtown buildings.

The main section, at the corner of Third Street and Beltrami Avenue, will have exposed brick on the top and cast concrete on the bottom to mirror the previous limestone than was used before.

"It was always a dream, but it was a scary dream," Vyskocil said of the exterior renovation, noting its extent.

As a public foundation, she said the NMF must be prudent with its resources. But, she continued, the foundation was "pleasantly surprised" that the projected cost of the project was less than the projections for an addition to its current building.

"It had to be a cost-effective option for us," Vyskocil said.

The building has multiple layers of fronts, even beyond the Wells Fargo stucco. When a layer of brick was removed, workers unveiled detailed brick patterns on the upper half of the building.

"That was a huge detail," Vyskocil said. "We're very excited about that."

The NMF hopes to have as much as the exterior work done as possible before the Bemidji tourism season begins this summer, she said. Work is being chronicled on the foundation's blog online at northwestminnesotafoundation.blogspot.com.

Inside, renovations mostly will center on the lobby, where there will be a boardroom and two conference rooms, divided by a removable wall so they could be combined into one large gathering space, which, depending on its layout, will hold as many as 120 people.

The vault, too, will stay. As it was built into the original building, it is part of the building's construction. Vyskocil laughed as she said it will be used for storage.

"We'll have the best storage for our chairs than anyone else in town," she said. "Our chairs will be so safe."

The building, which she said is more than 100 years old, was thoroughly inspected before the foundation committed. The NMF closed on the purchase Feb. 2 and work began within a week or two.

The work is not a true restoration, Vyskocil said, but is being done to foster a "historically appropriate look." The NMF has ordered high-efficiency windows and is making the building handicap-accessible.

Mutchler Bartram Architects out of Fargo, N.D., is the architect and construction manager for the work. Once the exterior is removed, Vyskocil said, the project will go out to bid; the NMF will try to use companies within a 100-mile radius.

It would have been too hard to bid the project with the existing façade still in place, she said. No one would have known what was behind it.

The project is on schedule at this time, Vyskocil said. The NMF plans to move into its new facility in November.

"We're really excited for a lot of reasons," she said. "We're really going to be a part of the fabric of the region."

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