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The Transformation of the Farmers & Mechanics Bank Building into a Westin Hotel
 in Downtown Minneapolis Might be Likened to a Blend of Cosmetic Makeover
 and Organ-Transplant Surgery
By Susan Feyder, Star Tribune, MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 5, 2006 - The ongoing transformation of the Farmers & Mechanics Bank building into a Westin hotel in downtown Minneapolis might be likened to a blend of cosmetic makeover and organ-transplant surgery.

The downtown landmark's skin already has gotten a chemical peel. For three months, workers painted solvent on exterior panels of the former bank building's 11-story tower, then scraped and power-washed them to remove dull gray paint and uncover their original turquoise color.

Inside, new heating and cooling systems have been installed, and elevators have been moved and rebuilt with their original brass- and nickel-plated doors intact. A former employee cafeteria on the 10th floor has been turned into guest rooms.

From dealing with thick steel plating worthy of a ship to deciding what to do with nearly immovable vault doors, the job has involved issues not found in a typical office building conversion.

"People in our business sometimes use the word 'hairy' to describe difficult challenges," said Collin Barr, executive vice president for Ryan Companies' Minnesota region. "This job has definitely had some hair on it."

Scheduled for completion this spring, the hotel will be the first downtown for Westin owner Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which also is planning new hotels under some of its other brand names in the renovated Foshay Tower, near the new Guthrie Theater and near the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Weaving with history

Barr declined to disclose the cost of renovating the F&M building, built in 1941 as the home office of the Farmers & Mechanics Savings Bank. More recently, U.S. Bank used the structure for its main downtown retail office. It moved out in 2002.

Barr said that redeveloping the former bank costs less than buying land downtown and building a new hotel. But cost savings weren't the reason Minneapolis-based Ryan chose to renovate rather than build from scratch, he said.

"Our predisposition and ongoing plans have always been to convert the existing historic bank building into a new Westin hotel that is woven into the urban fabric of the core of downtown," Barr said. Starwood officials agreed that the building was ripe for a renovation after taking a tour and seeing its decor, including the Art Deco lobby with its 34-foot ceiling, teak paneling, lotus-blossom chandeliers and marble staircase.

Earlier this year, Ryan began the process of getting the property, which includes the original bank and the 11-story addition built in 1963, on the National Register of Historic Places. Barr said the designation is likely to become official once the hotel is renovated and sold under a previously announced agreement to HEI Hospitality, a Connecticut-based hotel management firm.

While stripping paint from the exterior panels was time-consuming, it actually was one of the easier tasks, said Jeremy Wedel, a Ryan project manager. The difficult jobs have included structural work, such as relocating elevators and adding structural support to areas around and beneath a new lap pool that's going to be on the third floor, he said.

Wedel said another challenge was clearing out the old interior on the lower level, which held safe-deposit boxes and two massive vaults. The walls, ceilings and floors were lined with inch-thick steel plate, a reminder that the threat of thieves drilling or tunneling in once was a dominant security concern among bankers.

Workers used cutting torches to remove the steel plate, then took out the asbestos floor tile they discovered beneath, Wedel said. Two subcontractors tried and failed to move the vault doors, each weighing about 16,000 pounds. A third firm succeeded in moving one to the far end of the basement, where it will serve as a decoration. The other was moved to the entryway of one of 10 meeting and board rooms that are being installed on the lower level.

A former occupant of the lower level, bank building engineer John Lehman, said he has been amazed at the way Ryan has been able to find space for 214 guest rooms on the upper floors. Wedel said the hotel will have about 60 guest-room floor plans; newly built Westins typically have about six.

"I never thought they'd be able to come up with a design and get windows and natural light in that many rooms," Lehman said.

Creating a sun cycle

The building has windows only on the west side on the sixth through 11th floors because it is attached from the fifth floor down to Dain Plaza. Ryan compensated by having some rooms overlook an interior Zen garden with lighting that will change throughout the day to create an artificial dusk-to-dawn cycle, Wedel said.

The layout for the ground-floor lobby and restaurant was modified 18 times before a final design was chosen, he said.

"We wanted to be true to a typical Westin, which has a very separate lobby and restaurant," he said. The challenge was keeping the two separate but not diminishing the grandeur of the large open floor that was the former bank lobby.

The result is a design that puts the restaurant in the center, with five private dining rooms in what used to be bank executives' offices lining the east side. The kitchen will be opposite, on the side where the tellers' windows used to be.

At the far end of the ground floor, an original winding marble staircase will connect the hotel to the skyway system. That end of the floor also will have a guest lounge with a business center, and nearby, another former vault, which will be used for storing wine. Its heavy metal door will stay open, with the bottles in view through a decorative metal grate-style door.

Susan Feyder -- 612-673-1723 -- sfeyder@startribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2006, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

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