In December, Mike Evangelist added a new habit to his routine.

Several days a week, he heads to downtown Minneapolis, pulls on a hard hat, picks up his camera and spends a few hours exploring the considerable nooks and crannies within the store formerly known as Dayton's, which is undergoing a $214 million reinvention.

"Basically, I have complete liberty," he said. "I can go whenever I want, and take pictures of whatever I want. It's endlessly fascinating."

Inspired by a TV news update on what is now called the Dayton's Project, Evangelist contacted Telos, the Chicago-based real estate services firm that is leasing the building.

"I kind of stuck my nose in it," he said. "I told them, 'It's an important building because it has such a rich history, and it occupies such a central spot in the city.' "

The folks at Telos agreed, and granted Evangelist and his camera carte blanche.

"The Dayton's Project hired Mike as our photographer to capture the historic preservation happening within the building as well as to document the ongoing changes during construction at the project," said Cailin Rogers, Telos vice president of marketing and public relations.

Evangelist's photographic eye has long been drawn to downtown Minneapolis.

As a student at Mounds View High School in the early 1970s, he devoted countless rolls of film to scenes along Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue. Some of those snapshots ended up, decades later, in "Downtown Minneapolis in the 1970s," a page-turning collaboration with writer Andy Sturdevant that was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2015.

"Will these Dayton's photos make it into another book?" he said. "I don't know. Maybe."

What eventually became one of the country's largest department stores was constructed in stages. In 1902, George Draper Dayton built the original six-story edifice at 7th and Nicollet. The last addition came in 1963, when the famous eighth-floor auditorium was added; the store now encompassed roughly 1.2 million square feet spread out over 12 above- ground floors and two basements.

The Dayton's name graced the building for nearly a century, then it was briefly Marshall Field's, followed by an 11-year run as Macy's that ended in 2017. The current top-to-bottom makeover is transforming what was essentially a 20th-century selling machine into a 21st-century office-retail complex.

Evangelist is still growing accustomed to the building's daunting size.

"I looked it up, and a typical Target is about 100,000 to 120,000 square feet," he said. "So basically just about any floor in the building could be its own Target."

He's definitely getting his steps in, relying upon an elevator to take him to the top floor, then using stairs to make his way downward; most of the building's escalators have been removed.

Evangelist finds himself returning to the fifth floor, notable for its distinctive round windows. He also enjoys exploring the ornate former J.B. Hudson jewelry store on the first floor, as well as the ninth floor's executive offices, which are outfitted with restrooms, conference rooms and safes.

The 12th floor is another draw, especially its two restaurants, which are now patiently awaiting new uses. The Oak Grill is bereft of furniture and boarded up, but still recognizably the same.

Not so for the Skyroom, which has been stripped to its basic framework, with two exceptions: both the curvaceous ceiling and the enormous windows remain, mementos of the room-with-a-view's swank original design, which dates to 1947.

The kitchens still contain walk-in coolers, a massive oven and vintage candy-making machinery.

Female Daytonians will surely recall the art deco confection that is the fourth-floor women's restroom. It's still there, in all of its mint-and-black glory, awaiting use, albeit a bit dusty; Evangelist wiped down surfaces with microfiber cloths before snapping pictures.

"But there's also an amazing women's restroom on the 12th floor," said Evangelist. "I argued with my wife on this very subject. I told her about the cool bathroom on the fourth floor, and she said, 'No, it's definitely on the 12th floor.' "

Sandy Evangelist was right. He eventually discovered it, in the dark — there was no working electricity in the space — and photographed the glamorously curved-and-mirrored space using a single strobe light.

"I told my wife, 'The men's restrooms were like an outhouse, with running water, and you get this? How is that fair?' "

History revealed

Evangelist is also captivated by the methodical removal of layers and layers of floor and wall coverings, accumulated over the decades to suit the store's ever-evolving needs. The building's original materials and finishes are being revealed.

A favorite example lies in the basement, where once-hidden sandstone walls reveal how the foundations of the site's previous occupant — the second home of Westminster Presbyterian Church, destroyed in a fire in 1895 — were incorporated into the building's superstructure.

"That just blows me away," said Evangelist. "As I do this sort of photographic archaeology, I've come to realize that the building has been changing, continuously, for more than a hundred years."

Back when Macy's was conducting its final sale, Evangelist tried to capture what he could, but there were roadblocks.

"As soon as I'd pull out my camera, someone would say, 'You can't take pictures in here' and I'd think, 'Why not? Why do you care?' " he said. "But I'm a rule follower, so I didn't get many pictures from that period. I'm grateful for the ones that I did."

He's hoping to create a small then-and-now series, pairing images from the building's final days as a department store with contemporary views. One photo he snapped during Macy's going-out-of-business sale features a sign that reads "Last Act."

"Turns out, it's wrong," said Evangelist. "That was not the last act, it was only the beginning."

Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib