Minnesota Avenue hopping with three building projects

Three big projects are underway on the 2600 block of Minnesota Avenue.

Steve and Joni Harman, who own every building on the north side of that block, have converted a portion of what used to be an automobile showroom into Steve’s new law office, with a second-story space that could be either an apartment or another office.

Harman is moving out of his office in the Fieldhouse building, a few doors down from his new space. Another attorney, Russ Plath, who had been leasing office space next to Harman, is moving out, too.

Plath is in the process of buying the old L and L Building on the southeast corner of Minnesota and South 27th Avenue. After some renovations, he plans to use the entire second floor for his law office. A Subway sandwich shop is on the ground floor, with art galleries in the basement.

Meanwhile, across the city-owned parking lot from the L and L Building, and just across Minnesota Avenue from the Fieldhouse, Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley is in the midst of a total renovation of another old two-story building. It will provide office space and a day center for the homeless families served by Family Promise.

Family Promise will spend at least $600,000 on its building. Harman and Plath didn’t want to say how much they are spending, but they said something similar.

“I don’t know what the number will be,” Plath said. “It won’t be cheap.”

“Very expensive,” Harman said. “It’s a lot.”

Steve and Joni Harman became developers in 2008, when they purchased the Swift Building at 2605 Minnesota Ave., built in 1916 as a meat-processing plant. They converted that building into the Swift Lofts, with seven apartments, one of which they occupy, then bought the old Quonset hut building next door from the railroad.

The railroad is usually unwilling to sell trackside property, but Harman said “they couldn’t wait to get rid of” the Quonset hut. “It was a derelict building. It was just terrible,” he said.

He used the big steel hut for indoor parking for his tenants; the old auto dealership office was used for storage. It is that storage area that he is just about done converting into his new law office. The building is part of the Billings Old Town Historic District, and Harman used historic-project tax credits to support the renovation, so strict guidelines had to be followed in renovating the exterior.

He said Don and Kim Olsen of O2 Architects had to “fight like hell” to be allowed to cut three skylights in the roof of the Quonset hut, and they were told they couldn’t put any tint on the big showroom windows where Harman’s office is now because that wouldn’t be in keeping with the historical look.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Steve Harman walks across the second floor of the Quonset hut that houses his new law office. Workers are converting the upper space to a unit that could be an apartment or another office.

A historic plaque on the front of the building said it was built in 1948 by Price Motor Sales, making use of the corrugated steel Quonset huts developed by the Army during World War II. The building used a double-arched variation on the typical Quonset hut, which allowed for greater expansion. The brick façade, the plaque says, “covers the austere Quonset form and blends well with its Western Commercial style neighbors.”

The Harmans later purchased two connected buildings to the east of the Swift Building. The nearest one housed the two law offices, the Fieldhouse, owned by the Harmans’ son Ben, and Gym Jay, a personal training center that recently closed. Next to it is a feed store, Mintana Mills.

Plath said his decision to buy the L and L Building was not related to Harman’s move into the Quonset hut. He said it just makes sense financially to own his building, and he wanted to stay in the neighborhood.

His great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Hayden, a freighter, miner and prospector, came to the Yellowstone Valley in 1881. His obituary credited him with bringing the first shipment of buffalo hides into Denver in 1866, Plath said, and the Mintana Mills building used to deal in hides.

In the absence of any proof, Plath said, he is clinging to the possibility that his ancestor sold some buffalo hides on Minnesota Avenue. In any case, Plath hopes to honor Hayden by displaying his photograph in the L and L Building.

It was one of the South Side’s first brick buildings when it was constructed in 1896, and it originally housed a restaurant owned by two Chinese brothers named Lee, for whom the building was named. It later became a liquor and cigar store, with “nicely furnished rooms” on the second floor. For many years the building housed the notorious Arcade Bar.


Pete Tolton

Russ Plath, second from right, is in the process of buying the L and L Building at Minnesota Avenue and South 27th Street. He toured it Thursday with architects Nick Pancheau, left, and Logan Hendricks, and interior designer Alex Faught, all with Collaborative Design Architects.

With its ornate sheet-metal cornice and cast-iron storefront, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plath said he’ll use all 2,500 square feet on the second floor for his law office. After some renovation, he hopes to move in during February.

More extensive work will be done to the south and east sides of the building, which had little done to them in earlier renovations. Part of that work will include restoring glass to the bricked-over windows on the second floor.

Plath toured the building Thursday with two architects and an interior designer from Collaborative Design Architects, who will be in charge of the renovation.

To the east across the parking lot, at 10 S. 26th St., is the building being renovated by Family Promise, formerly known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network. It uses a consortium of religious congregations to put homeless families up for the night, then provides educational and job-training services during the day.


When he moves into the L and L Building, Plath intends to display a portrait of his great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Hayden.

The new building will have a kitchen and offices on the ground floor, including a career center and space for the director and a case manager. Upstairs will be four family bathrooms/dressing rooms, a laundry room, a commons, a computer station and a children’s area. Outside, just to the west of the building, there will be a children’s playground.

Built in the early 1900s, the brick building originally housed the Maple Leaf Club and most recently Galles Filter. After Galles moved in 1999, the building and lot were purchased by the city. Family Promise bought the building and an adjoining lot from the city for $85,000.

Attorney Shane Colton, president of the Family Promise board, said work began on the building in September and it should be ready by February. The architect on that project is Jeff Kanning, one of the owners of Collaborative Design Architects and also a Family Promise board member.

There is no historic designation for the building, Colton said, but “we’re trying really hard—and it’s costing us a lot of money—to preserve that old brick.”

Family Promise has raised more than $450,000 toward its $600,000 goal, Colton said, and is especially concerned about having enough money to complete the outdoor children’s play area. And the $600,000 goal is just “bare bones,” he said. Family Promise would like to be able to put some money in a contingency fund to pay for continuing maintenance on the building.

Harman said all the new activity just adds to what was already a good neighborhood. He was never afraid to live and work on Minnesota Avenue, he said, but he’s still been surprised by the virtually complete lack of crime and vandalism.

As soon as he and Joni opened the Swift Lofts, he said, he put a patio table and two padded chairs out in front of the building. He didn’t want to chain them up, he said, and figured if they didn’t make it two weeks, so be it.

Six years later, he said, “they’re still there.”

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