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Corn Palace: A historic transformation, or a historic mistake?

When the first Corn Palace was built in 1892, it was a shell of a building with no electricity or plumbing.

The second Corn Palace, built in 1905, was hastily completed in only 55 days, and lasted less than two decades.

But the third and current Corn Palace, built in 1921, has endured for decades. Now, with a two-phase, nearly $7.2 million renovation of Mitchell's iconic arena and tourist attraction set to begin in the next few weeks, some worry the historic aspects of the Corn Palace are about to be lost in favor of a modern, next-generation design.

In the first phase of the renovation, changes planned for the Corn Palace include new light-up domes, larger murals with improved lighting and large windows that open to a walk-out balcony above the marquee. The cost of construction for the first phase is expected to be about $3.62 million, with a 10 percent contingency taking up the rest of the $4.2 million budget for the first phase.

In the second phase, the existing City Hall building -- which adjoins the Corn Palace's north side -- will be transformed into a large, open space for agriculture-themed exhibits, complete with a small theater large enough to accommodate a busload of tourists.

The Corn Palace is a contributing structure to Mitchell's Historic Commercial District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. That prompted a review of the renovation plan by the Mitchell Historic Preservation Commission and the State Historic Preservation Office. Both groups approved the project late last year.

Lyle Swenson, a member of the Mitchell Historic Preservation Commission, voted in favor of the plan. But Swenson, who is also president of the Mitchell Area Historical Society, said Thursday there are parts of the renovation he could do without.

"I think there is a little too much glitz for me, but that's just a personal opinion," Swenson said.

Swenson admitted the committee that planned the renovation faced a difficult task in trying to develop a project that appealed to the masses, while still respecting the history of the building.

"Maybe when I see it after it's done, it won't be as glitzy as I think it will be," he said.

Another commission member, Lori Holmberg, said she believes much of the work being done as part of the renovation is long overdue.

"It's really going to allow the Corn Palace to better present what it's all about and actually be much more engaging with people," she said Thursday.

Eric Amel, an architect with the Minneapolis-based firm designing the project for the city, said designers were aware of the history of the Corn Palace when they developed the plan for the renovation.

"Fortunately, perhaps, there isn't enough budget to erase all of it," he said jokingly in an interview Tuesday.

Amel said the design of the renovation is intended to emphasize the most obvious aspect of the Corn Palace: the corn.

"First and foremost, it's a building decorated with corn," Amel said. "Our work is meant to be somewhat silent, compared to the whimsy of the corn, the turrets and the domes."

A number of the features included in the renovation are nods to the history of the Corn Palace, including, Amel claims, the new, light-up domes.

There is no doubt, he said, the new domes were given a modern design meant to astonish visitors.

"At the same time, they're meant to harken back to the very first years when the domes were more leafy," he said.

The Corn Palace's current domes are lit by spotlights at night, but the lighting of the new domes will add a new dimension to the building, Amel said.

"The new skins on the domes and turrets are going to be much more three-dimensional, so light is going to bring those to life at night."

That, Amel added, could even extend visitor hours at the attraction and could mean more people staying overnight in Mitchell.

The large sign above the Corn Palace's marquee will be given a more classical western look in the renovation. The columns on the front of the building will also be redone and given a more complex, classical appearance.

"We're bringing back a classiness to those that should elevate the whole building," Amel said.

A few corn murals will be lost in the renovation in favor of three large windows that open to a walk-out balcony above the marquee. Amel said he was surprised that aspect of the project was approved by the historic preservation groups, but added the benefit of the feature will make the loss of the murals worthwhile.

"Bringing light into the building and, conversely, having the interior glow be visible from the street will make the building much more inviting," he said. "That will be worth it."

Inside the lobby, a timeline will be built showing the history of the Corn Palace with major performers over the years, along with notable moments in state, national and world history.

This renovation, Amel said, is merely a chapter in the long history of the Corn Palace, which he noted is marked by a constant state of transformation.

"We can't possibly pretend to think this is the final chapter," Amel said. "It's always going to change."