Historic Building Modern HVAC

Historic Building Modern HVAC

An update from Director Tennis

Since beginning my Depot journey in 2019, the building has had many needs. Some were emergencies: think exterior doors that won’t lock, flooding in the basement, and a 1990’s carpet that was so worn it would trip visiting guests as they meandered. Some were less threatening but more cosmetic: walls that were thirsty for paint, holes in the wall, and a directional signage system that can be best described as surreal. My team and I had the pleasure of resolving these issues with the help of some good budgeting and clear messaging.

Administrator Gray and State Delegation touring broken HVAC equipment

However, one item remains on the list: our building-wide HVAC system. What is HVAC?, you may ask (go ahead and skip to the next paragraph if you are already familiar): HVAC stands for “Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning.” It’s the system that makes sure you’re not too hot, not too cold, and the air you breathe is just right. As simple as this seems, put in the context of a mixed-use building over 130 years old, this is vastly challenging.

For instance, our building houses a ballet that needs a warm, somewhat humid environment for practice, while simultaneously, just upstairs, there is a stage that needs cooler air to mitigate hot stage lights and lower moisture. Down the hall, you will see several artifacts from veterans who lived 70+ years ago, which need low humidity and a very even temperature. Adjacent to this exhibit, The Great Hall hosts heaping handfuls of community events, chock-full of humans who talk, sing, laugh, and roam, heating the giant room with activity and letting the outside air in as they enter and exit our main entrance. Upstairs, canoes and incredible beadwork require a climate for leather and birch bark to thrive so visitors can keep them company. Zip down to the track level, and you will find historic trains, which may be fired up here and there to keep them healthy (but what keeps a train engine healthy isn’t necessarily healthy for the people working in the offices right next doors, so that exhaust needs to leave the building in a hurry). Throw in some world-class classical musicians, and you begin to see just how many crucial needs our HVAC must serve.

What happens when you don’t have an operatable HVAC system? Well, the obvious: poor air quality, unworkable temperatures, and unsafe artifacts. Ours is still operating, but just barely, and only by the hard work of St. Louis County Property Management. Our building maintenance hero, Sam, will manually adjust valves, pumps, and louvers in order to give the building air quality it (and everybody inside) deserves. But it’s a more than full-time job, and Sam needs to take care of many other needs for the building. Typically, buildings like the Depot have an automated HVAC system, which means a team has the ability to monitor their system from a single source and tweak from central controls. It also means that should something go wrong, we will be notified immediately and prevent damage to the building or its exhibits.

But a new HVAC means money – and we have been requesting assistance from the State of Minnesota in order to achieve the $16 million-dollar price tag. Utilizing state of the art technology, our new HVAC will include sustainable, holistic systems that will benefit the building and its inhabitants in many ways, including passive solar, upgraded electrical, efficient pump systems, and customizable bundles for future tenants, and will also result in utility savings that could be used for future capital costs or to address tenant needs. Lowering costs will enable St. Louis County to keep rents low for non-profit organizations and maintain free or affordable admissions to community events. To find out how your organization might qualify to be a tenant at The Depot, click here.

We have had the pleasure of support from multiple folks during our years of lobbying for this ask. From elected officials like our team of County Commissioners to state Representatives and Senators, this project has gained momentum. In 2020, we were fortunate to have received $1.5 million from the state bonding bill and put it to use immediately on the first step of HVAC – “envelope integrity:” a new theatre roof, tuckpointing, a basement water abatement system (goodbye, flooding!), and a restored portico (The Depot’s front porch). Meanwhile, our teams at Architectural Advantage and Windsor Engineering have worked closely with St. Louis County to create a solid but flexible set of plans for a very unique building. Through months of pre-design and schematic design, the team has created multiple models that demonstrate just how much impact this project will have: better controls, better experiences, and a better building. At this point, we are shovel-ready for the next phase of our beautiful building’s future, including bountiful arts programming, exciting public events, enriching history opportunities, and even a brand-new train station, Northern Lights Express!

To learn more about St. Louis County's state bonding request and other legislative priorities,
new railing