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Former tuberculosis sanitarium in Duluth now open for tours

The nonprofit group hoping to restore a former tuberculosis sanitarium just west of Duluth has turned to tours of the deteriorating facility as a fundraising device.

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Tom Garvey, property manager of the old Nopeming Sanitorium, describes the vandalism and general decay in the Nopeming boiler plant around him in January 2015. (File photo / Forum News Service)

The nonprofit group hoping to restore a former tuberculosis sanitarium just west of Duluth has turned to tours of the deteriorating facility as a fundraising device.

“Today our goal is to fundraise to keep the building from deteriorating even more,” wrote Tanya Graysmark, Nopeming project director for Orison Inc., in an email.

Orison is the nonprofit that was formed to put the Nopeming complex - visible from Interstate 35 approaching Duluth, near the Midway Road exit - to good use.

So on the weekend before Halloween, Orison began offering tours to people who reserved space in advance. For $22 (daytime) or $25 (evening), they were led across the grounds, visited designated areas of the building and heard a brief history of Nopeming from the tour guide, Graysmark wrote.

All tours offered over three weekends sold out, Graysmark said Monday.

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Organizers originally planned to suspend the tours after this past weekend until late spring, she said. But response has been so favorable they might offer tours a couple of more times this year. The best way to see if tours are available is to go to the Eventbrite website - eventbrite.com - and search for Nopeming, she said.

A Halloween-related opening may have been a good fit for an out-of-the-way facility that has had spooky connotations in recent years.

Opened in 1912, Nopeming was the first of what would be 13 sanitariums in Minnesota to treat tuberculosis, a contagious and deadly lung disease. It was thought the location would both isolate patients from the general population while providing them plenty of fresh air.

The name came from an Ojibwe phrase which, roughly translated, means “out in the woods.”

With the threat of TB fading, Nopeming was repurposed as a nursing home in 1971. St. Louis County closed the facility in 2002 and eventually sold it to Twin Cities businessman Frank Vennes Jr.

Vennes donated 40 acres of the property, including the buildings, to Fidelis Foundation of Plymouth, Minn., in 2007. Unable to develop the land because of financial reversals, Fidelis donated the property to Orison in December 2009.

The group had ambitious plans for the property, hoping to house an equestrian center and reopen the building as a preschool, day care for children and adults and a charter school for kindergarten through sixth grade, with an emphasis on children with special needs. The original goal was to open the charter school in the fall of 2011.

The plans are less definite now.

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“Long-term plans are still to repurpose the building for a community-based center,” Graysmark wrote. “At the time we are done renovating and updating we will consider what the community needs and make a decision on what that may be.”

The immediate goals are to fix the roof, replace broken windows and address the electrical system, she wrote. Specifically, revenue from the tours is intended to be used toward fixing the roof before winter sets in.

Orison previously has been able to to raise some money, thanks in part to reports of paranormal activity at Nopeming. Last year, the structure was featured in an episode of the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures.”

The facility and surrounding land also have been shopped around as a film venue and used for military simulations.

The tours have a no-frills quality about them. There is no electricity or heat in the building, nor are there working bathrooms - just outhouses available before and after the building tour. Guests are encouraged to bring flashlights for the evening tour and told to dress for the weather. Inside, the building is as cold and damp as outside, perspective tourists are told.

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