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Bill Katter, from United Properties, passed through the atrium of the renovated Ford Center near Target Field. The first of three companies will move in next week.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Remodel will fit to a T

  • Article by: JANET MOORE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 13, 2011 - 2:06 PM

While much attention has been showered on the soon-to-be shuttered Ford plant in St. Paul, a multimillion-dollar renovation project tied to the automaker's past has been quietly taking shape in Minneapolis, and is now near completion.

An 11-story brick building formerly known as Ford Centre on N. 5th Street has undergone a $40-million-plus makeover that speaks to Ford Motor Co.'s storied past in Minnesota.

The 270,000-square-foot structure overlooks Target Field and was once an assembly plant for Model Ts. It will soon be home to HGA Architects and Engineers, the creative agency Olson, and luxury cleaning products maker Caldrea under the new moniker Ford Center. HGA will start moving in next week, with Olson and others following early next year.

The bones of the 99-year-old building were largely intact when the project began, including five elevators that were crucial to the vertical manufacturing production method common in the early part of the 20th century, said Richard Bonnin, associate vice president-architecture for HGA. But over the years, the finer details that hinted of the building's past as an auto assembly plant and showroom had mostly been stripped away. Some research, imagination and elbow grease were required to restore them.

"Our goal was to retain the Ford Center's industrial aesthetic while creating a creative and complex new workplace to do our best work," Bonnin said.

Ford only used the building for 11 years, before departing for the greener pastures of St. Paul in 1925. Since then, the Minneapolis building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, has housed Honeywell thermostat manufacturing operations, offices and artists' lofts.

Minneapolis developer Schafer Richardson purchased the property in 1997 with plans to build condominiums, but those plans fell through. Bloomington-based United Properties bought the building for $12.7 million in 2008.

Two years later, Target Field opened, and the neighborhood bloomed as more commercial and residential projects followed the ballpark's lead. The addition of Olson to the area complements the move of other creative agencies, including Colle+McVoy and Carmichael Lynch -- creating a kind of mini Madison Avenue on the western edge of downtown. All are served by the nearby Hiawatha light rail and Northstar commuter rail lines.

In recent weeks, a legion of construction workers put the finishing touches on Ford Center's painstaking renovation, which includes a striking new two-story atrium entrance and staircase from the street level to the main concourse of the building. The lobby features 20-foot-high ceilings, aged raw-steel finishes, terrazzo floors, maple ceiling panels and large panels of historic images. Space has also been set aside for a restaurant, although a tenant has not been named.

"The challenge was that, before, you walked out of the basement level, so we needed to create a new entry," said John Saunders, of United Properties, the project's owner and investor, on a recent tour.

At least 350 Olson employees will occupy 4 1/2 floors, or 125,000 square feet, beginning early next year, while HGA's 330 employees will assume 84,000 square feet, or three floors, next week. Caldrea will occupy 27,000 square feet on the fifth floor. The building is currently 88 percent leased.

HGA's space on the main level encompasses what once was Ford's Model T retail showroom, complete with 19-foot-tall windows. Detail from original plaster columns was restored, or in some cases, replicated, in the portion of the building that was once open to the public.

One of the biggest pieces of the renovation involved restoring 700 of the 1,000 distinctive checkerboard windows throughout the building, as well as replacing five freight elevators with six modern lifts. A fitness center for building tenants now occupies space where Model Ts were loaded onto railcars. And a parking garage with 78 indoor bike racks replaced eight loading docks.

RJM Construction, the main contractor, said about 500 construction jobs were created for work on the core of the structure and shell, with an additional 500 jobs created for tenant improvements and renovations.

Some Twin Cities residents may find it surprising that Ford's operations in Minnesota began in Minneapolis -- the company's first plant opened in 1912 out of a converted warehouse at 616 S. 3rd St.

The 5th Street site, purchased by Ford for $50,000, was one of at least a dozen sites built nationwide under the direction of the company's architect at the time, John Graham, according to Brian McMahon, a local historian who is writing a book on Ford's tenure in Minnesota.

They share similar "stylistic motifs," as McMahon put it, although the 5th Street plant was, at the time, probably the tallest structure ever built to manufacture cars.

Because shipping fully assembled cars was prohibitively expensive, Ford began shipping parts by rail to various operations across the country for assembly on site. Parts were loaded onto elevators to the top floor and the cars were assembled, bit by bit, then transported by a series of ramps to the ground floor.

"It was the last gasp of the gravity feed system of production, before the assembly line and the heavy reliance on electricity became necessary to build cars," McMahon said. (The St. Paul site had its own source of hydroelectric power from the Mississippi River.)

The Twin Cities proved to be fertile turf for auto sales because "the hardy life of the farmers, most of them descendants of the Vikings, led them to appreciate peculiarly the clean-cut strength of the Ford," a company newsletter said in 1913.

"It was seen as a wealthy community at the time," said McMahon. "The Model T was a great car with a high body good for rural, rough roads."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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