MOORHEAD - When you talk to Dan Huffman about all the work that has gone into reviving the building that is now the Armory Event Center, you’ll hear the phrase, “This was a challenge.”
He uses it often.
Huffman is the construction manager for the Armory Event Center at 904 Center Ave. It’s been his job to shepherd the 1915 building through its transformation from worn out to welcoming.
Sometime in September, the building should be ready for concerts, corporate events and weddings.
“This one’s coming. I’d say another six to eight weeks, it will look different,” Huffman said Thursday, June 17, as he eyed a raft of materials on the main floor of the armory’ interior.
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Huffman estimates the main floor will be able to hold 900 to 1,000 people for a concert, or 450 to 500 for a big wedding or corporate event.
“It's going to provide a niche for events that’s very unique,” Huffman said. “If you like historic (buildings), this is going to be a really cool place to be. The way it is set up, we can accomplish it all.”
The Armory Event Center is a Kevin Bartram reclamation/transformation project.
The Fargo architect didn’t set out to buy the armory-turned-auto dealership for the challenge. He bought it for the parking lot that he figured would be great for the residents of the neighboring Simon Warehouse Lofts.
But the location is great, Bartram said. Once the Simon's reconstruction was finished last summer, he turned his eye and resources toward the armory.
Office space and housing didn't seem to work for the building's setup, Bartram said.
“We kept coming back to its original use as an armory. Armories are really multi-function event spaces and that’s what it seemed to be where it worked best. Kind of going back to it’s original use," Bartram said.
Bartram estimates he’ll have $4.5 million invested into the more than 20,000 square foot structure by the time it’s finished.
Work on the facility started in earnest in 2020.
Demolishing the old basement floor, digging it deeper and stabilizing the foundation were big jobs, as was installing new steel support beams, Huffman said. Two large concrete ramps that had funneled cars in and out of the basement automotive repair bay were also removed.
Push piers to stabilize the existing foundation had to be rammed 105 to 110 feet into the earth until they hit bedrock, Huffman said. Then the new, deeper foundations could be poured.
Digging the basement deeper brought the work into the water table, which required using a crane with tracks when it came time to install support steel for the building. Before drain tile was installed, walking on the floor of the basement meant sinking calf deep into muck in some spots.
To keep the basement stabilized as the concrete was laid, it had to be done in three separate pours.
“This was a challenge. The whole floor is brand new,” Huffman said.
The main floor was also demolished, raised and repoured, to add to the headroom in the basement, Bartram said.
The windows throughout are new, but mirror the armory’s original look. The stage is roughed out and big - taking up nearly a quarter of the first floor.
The building was a National Guard armory until the 1930s, when it was replaced by an armory where the Moorhead library now stands.
Ironically, that newer armory was torn down in the 1960s, Bartram said.
“Here was a building that was built in 1915. They said it wasn’t structurally sound, and it’s still here in 2021,” Bartram said.
The most recent business use for the armory was as the home for a Muscatell auto dealership, Huffman said.
Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson is impressed by the project.
“I think that having another event center is going to bring more experiences downtown,” Carlson said Tuesday, June 22.
“What we’re doing with our downtown is creating areas to have experiences, to have events. It’s going to help support all of the people that are moving to and living downtown,” she said. “It’s really just about creating that buzz and creating the reason to go there. I’m excited. Plus, it’s a really cool, old building."
Derrick LaPoint, president and CEO of Downtown Moorhead Inc., praised Bartram for breathing new life into some of downtown Moorhead’s oldest buildings.
“Kevin has been such a valued asset for the development community for downtown Moorhead. He’s done so many great projects,” LaPoint said Tuesday. “We lost so many of our old buildings. To be able to kind of put new life into these places that have so much history, it’s fun to see.”
Electricians, plumbers, drywall installers and elevator technicians have been working throughout the armory the last couple of weeks.
Framing is finished and drywall is going up in the basement, where there will be preparation and serving kitchens, a dining area, bathrooms, and rooms for brides and grooms to prepare for weddings, or for bands to use as green rooms.
Is this Huffman’s most difficult project?
“I’d say it’s probably the most interesting project,” Huffman said.
That says a lot, since he estimates he has managed $600 million in building projects for school districts in Fargo, Grand Forks, and Centennial School District in Anoka County, Minn.
He’s also overseeing another Bartram project, the nearby Block 37 Flats, a three story 28-unit apartment complex on Main Avenue. That is on track to be completed by mid-July.
Bartram has had a lot of success revitalizing old buildings. Beyond the Simon Warehouse Lofts, he gave new life to the Kassenborg Block on Main in Moorhead. On the west side of the Red River, he rehabbed Fargo’s Historic Ford Building, and created Drekker Brewing’s “Brewhalla” and the Railyard complex.
Huffman praised Bartram’s vision.
“You’ve got to really give him a lot of credit. He has an incredible eye for what these buildings are and what they can be,” Huffman said.
Bartram said the Armory Event Center is on a lot of people’s radar screens.
“Most of the interest out there is for 2022. We think that we’ll get some corporate parties, holiday parties. And we have some other things that we are working on," Bartram said.
Big incentives are that parking or sharing the venue won't be problems, Bartram said.
“You rent the building, you get the whole thing. We tried not to put too many fancy finishes in there. We tried to let the building be what it was and let the events speak for themselves,” Bartram said