MITCHELL, S.D. — 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 to 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 sitting by itself in the middle of a residential area in Mitchell, and Schmidt said that’s not his idea of preserving a vital piece of the city'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.
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.
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
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,” said Lyle Swenson, an 84-year-old Mitchell native. “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.
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, Minn., 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 firetrucks 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.”