With an agricultural history rooted in corn farming, South Dakota celebrates each crop-growing season during the annual Corn Palace Festival held in late August at their famed Corn Palace. The World’s Only Corn Palace, Mitchell, S.D.’s premier tourist attraction, was originally constructed in 1892 and was later rebuilt in 1905. The third, and present building, completed in 1921, will once again be seen in a whole new light. Attracting more than a half million visitors annually, the grand architectural gestures with curves and shaped columns reminiscent of corn cobs will set the stage at the newly renovated Corn Palace, sure to be the crowning jewel of this year’s event.

The 20-Year Vision

MSR Architects of Minneapolis began working on the current renovation project as far back as 2011 when they were commissioned to complete a study to develop a 20-year, long-term vision to improve the visitor experience and increase the number of visitors at this historic site. Fast forward to early 2014, MSR had assembled an expert team, with the technology and experience to transform their design intent into built form within a set budget. MSR’s decisions made early on shaped the successful outcome of this renovation project.

Involving a Subject Matter Expert

During design development MSR called upon Radius Track Corporation to identify a comprehensive design assist package that detailed constructible engineered solutions for three ceiling types: first, a large compound curved ceiling surface (ceiling 1A,1B,1C) within the first floor exhibition space that opens up to a grand foyer flooded with natural light. Second, the foyer also consists of a continuation of the first floor ceiling that tightly curves up to the second floor mezzanine space (ceiling 2A and 2B). And finally, above that, a barrel vaulted ceiling opens up to the exterior, featuring large window apertures and access to a balcony space on the second floor (ceiling 3). Challenged by extensive existing HVAC elements and ceiling framing depth limitations, the SME developed two-way framing solutions specific to each area of the building.

By frontloading framing design and engineering during Design Development, the architect maintained control of the framing budget for their unique and complex design concepts and prevented the work from being value engineered out of the project due to budgetary restrictions.

In addition, the design assist package included proprietary specifications, written by Conspectus Inc., for the scope of work covered by the SME. The specifications outlined key requirements and tolerances, acceptable material suppliers and ensured that each ceiling would be precisely constructed according to the architect’s design intent.

Design Meets Craftsmanship

With contract awards in place, the team of MSR Inc.—architect, Mueller Lumber—general contractor, Fox Drywall & Plastering—framing and drywall contractor and Radius Track went to work.

Starting in the lobby/ticket booth area, approximately 1,000 square-feet of the second floor was removed to create the double height space open to the new vaulted ceiling (ceiling 3). Interrupted in three locations for window and door openings, the SME studied vault framing transitions within the 3-D model to blend the radii of the main vault to that required by the door and window openings. Once approved by the architect, data extracted from the 3-D model directly drove the CNC fabrication of the pre-curved framing elements. Coordination, material sequencing and labeling of each unique part essentially provided the installation contractor with a kit to erect the grand space and each additional ceiling.

In keeping with the curvilinear shape of corn, the first floor ceiling curves up to meet the newly truncated second floor and transitions smoothly into an elegant glass railing system (Area 2A and 2B plan view below). Because the finished edge of the second floor would not be in place until after the curved framing was scheduled to be complete, Radius Track provided a 3D fabrication model of the framing system in order to coordinate this effort. “The Curved-Right pre-curved framing and service Radius Track Corporation provided exceeded our expectations,” says Ron Fox, owner and president of Fox Drywall. “At the entry, they engineered and manufactured the custom framing for the curved soffit to meet the balcony floor above, before the floor was even in place. The framing fit so precisely the glass railing manufacturer worked from the Radius Track shop drawings.”

Responding to Field Conditions

As with any building project, communication and coordination are very important in developing a successful building. In the case of the nearly 100-year-old corn palace, this proved especially true with the first floor compound curved ceiling (ceiling 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E). The initial investigation during design development lead the team to believe that framing could be supported from the concrete slab of the second floor at consistent intervals in a typical fashion using wire hangers. As demolition progressed during construction, it became clear that an area in the center of the compound curved ceiling, and a low point, did not have sufficient access to structure above due to existing mechanical systems. With only eight weeks to delivery, a new two way framing logic was designed and engineered to span the unsupported distance. Carefully coordinated pre-curved CFS framing box beam assemblies carried the additional weight without decreasing the finished ceiling height of the first floor.

 Like the agricultural growing season, every building renovation presents unique challenges. Knowing who to include on the project team is not the only important detail, also knowing when to engage subject matter experts offered this team benefits from design development all the way to project completion.  

Side Job: The Corn Palace 

The Corn Palace is located at 604 North Main Street in Mitchell, S.D. During the summer months the Corn Palace offers free guided tours led by friendly guides full of a-maize-ing facts. (Like how many nails and staples are used in the decoration process.) The tour also features an outstanding video explaining the Corn Palace Story. After the tour visitors can view displays about the Corn Palace, how the murals are created, souvenirs and entertainment from the past and how the corn is grown.

Contact Info:
Dan Sabers, Corn Palace Director
Email: dansabers@cornpalace.com
or 605-995-8427