Five years ago, it was time for a new look.
In July 2014, the Corn Palace had its fully-enclosed fiberglass domes pulled off. About a year later, the skyline of Mitchell's Main Street welcomed curved steel domes that glow in bright colors. It was part of a multi-million-dollar renovation project that featured enlarged corn murals and a balcony above the front entrance.
Although Corn Palace Director Scott Schmidt said the modernized domes have added a unique element to the 98-year-old building, he hasn’t forgotten the iconic old domes he grew up admiring. But considering the current location of several domes that once overlooked Mitchell’s Main Street in past decades, Schmidt worries a piece of important history is falling to the wayside.
So where are all of the Corn Palace's old domes? Wherever they are, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the location.
“Anytime you bring a change to a historic building or landmark such as the Corn Palace, it’s not always well received right away. The old domes still had a way of capturing your attention and eyes,” Schmidt said. “I love the new domes, but when we took the old ones off, the Corn Palace lost a bit of historical context.”
Schmidt has set his sights on preserving the history that lies within the old domes. One of the most recently removed domes is just sitting by itself in the middle of a residential area off North Kimball Street, and Schmidt said that’s not his idea of preserving a vital piece of Mitchell’s history.
According to City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein, the city doesn’t have a formal process for storing replaced domes, hence why several of the Corn Palace's old domes are in various locations around Mitchell and the surrounding area. Ellwein said she believes the construction company tasked with replacing the domes has the authority to choose where they're stored.
“It would be great to find a spot for us to put one or more of the domes downtown, and that way they’re close to the building they were once an important part of,” Schmidt said, noting the Corn Palace Plaza as a potential spot to display an old dome. “It’s extremely vital to keep the history of the Corn Palace alive, and I think tourists would enjoy seeing what they looked like in person.”
The retro-themed light green, yellow and blue dome on Kimball Street is among three old domes The Daily Republic was able to locate in Mitchell. Another old dome sits in the backyard of a Mount Vernon residence.
Cory Cumings, owner of Mitchell Roofing and Siding, recently purchased the old dome from a friend. During his seventh annual Fourth of July party at his home in Mount Vernon this year, the old checkered brown and yellow spiraled dome was a fixture at the event, and several of his guests were taking photos with it.
Another dome is situated near the city landfill, and it has been there for a fair amount of time, according to Schmidt.
Schmidt said the modern domes have been met with a substantial amount of positive feedback from tourists in his three years serving as the Corn Palace director, but he believes displaying an old dome in a designated area on Main Street would provide a historical perspective of the building.
“We have the old photographs of the building design for each year hanging up inside, and it would be awesome for people to see it in real life up close,” Schmidt said.
While the modernized domes symbolize a new era on the rooftop of the Corn Palace, the old domes represent a deep piece of the building’s history for some longtime Mitchell natives.
Lyle Swenson, former U.S. Marshal and longtime Davison County Sheriff, said he misses the old style domes he looked at from the streets of downtown Mitchell.
“I really liked the traditional style domes. They complimented the Corn Palace really well,” Swenson said.
Swenson was raised in Mitchell and watched the transformation of the Corn Palace domes for the past seven decades. While he’s gradually warming up to the modernized domes and the spectacle of the LED lighting at night, he said his past connection to the old domes made it difficult to support replacing them with a completely different style.
“I was worried the whole building was going to change significantly when they decided to go with the new domes,” Swenson said. “The traditional design of the Corn Palace brought thousands of people to Mitchell in the past, and I didn't want to see anything change that.”
Roughly 210,000 visitors annually flock to the Corn Palace. Schmidt said the renovations and new domes have helped maintain strong visitor numbers since he’s been the director.
First-time visitor Mindy Choate is one of the tourists who backs the modern look of the relatively young domes. As she veered off Interstate 90 with her daughters, while trekking their way back to the Pacific Northwest from a recent Kentucky trip, Choate said the existing domes were appealing to her young daughters.
“I really like it, and I think it has a mix of traditional and modern architecture. Based off the pictures of the old domes, I think my daughters like this style better,” Choate said Friday morning while standing in front of the Corn Palace. “I think this look helps it keep up with the times of creative architecture.”
History of Corn Palace domes
The retired 84-year-old Swenson spends a large portion of his time in the basement of the Carnegie Resource Center, which is the old public library, now filled with a treasure trove of historical information, documents and photographs of Mitchell.
While Mitchell’s first Corn Palace was built in 1892 a few blocks south of the current Main Street location, old photographs show the first domes were featured on the 1905 building.
“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were numerous Corn Palace structures in the country. Many of them were big buildings decorated in corn, but didn’t really have domes,” Swenson said. “To put domes on in that time period had to have been very difficult.”
Swenson recalls when the Corn Palace changed course from placing customized constructed domes made of concrete, wood and stucco. He said the wooden domes were beginning to cause too much weight and stress on the building, which led the city to installing the first fiberglass dome in 1973. The center fiberglass dome tinted in bright yellow weighed in at 4,200 pounds.
Some of the old domes were custom built by a former local construction owner prior to the fiberglass switch. Swenson said the process of making the wooden concrete domes was quite fascinating and very challenging.
“It was a very interesting process how the old wooden domes were made. I remember the city had a contract with Orval Bussmus at the time, and he was one of the only people who knew how to make them back then,” Swenson said.
Just five years into welcoming a new fiberglass center dome, Swenson received what he said was one of the most alarming phone calls he experienced in his 42 years with local law enforcement.
While on vacation in Rochester, Minnesota, during the summer of 1979, Swenson was informed the Corn Palace domes were on fire. The news shocked the then-Davison County Sheriff and prompted his immediate return to assist in any way he could.
“To make matters more challenging, Main Street was tore up at that time for road construction. So the fire trucks had to get through thick mud to start putting the fire out,” Swenson said. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard the Corn Palace was on fire. They did a great job, though, and thankfully the building was saved.”
Swenson said Mitchell firefighters had the fire controlled and extinguished by the time he arrived hours later, but hearing stories from the first responders detailing the scene of the iconic domes engulfed in flames horrified him. He said the consensus of the investigation revealed it was an intentionally caused fire, but a lack of enough evidence led to no arrests.
Meaningful dome coloration
Schmidt said the LED lighting feature, which illuminates the domes in the night sky with bright hues of color, is one of his favorite aspects of the existing domes.
“We now have the capability to choose colors of the domes at night, and we’ve tapped into that a lot,” Schmidt said, referencing the recent purple color change for Alzheimer’s Awareness. “When we change the colors in recognition for an event or individual, it brings the community together.”
While Schmidt uses the capability of interchangeable LED lit colors to honor as many nationwide events as possible, such as pink’s association with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this year he lit the domes to honor someone near to his heart: his newborn daughter Juniper Schmidt.
Moving forward, Schmidt is focused on exploring various ways to implement unique aspects to the Corn Palace experience. Somewhere in his list of improvements and ideas is his quest to restore a vital piece of history that sits alone in the backyard of a residential home.
“We are always looking for ways to improve Main Street, and having the dome on display in downtown Mitchell is a good place to start,” Schmidt. “When you look at how far this beautiful landmark has come, it puts things into perspective. We sometimes take this place for granted, and preserving its history is a way to pay the Corn Palace homage.”