I went into City Hall that day to acquire a “capacity sign” needed for the current school building in which we were renting. A kindly gentleman, adorned with a city official name tag and security badge came out to meet me. I asked him about the capacity sign and told him I was with Hand In Hand Christian Montessori.
He looked up knowingly and responded -
“Oh! You are the school that just bought the abandoned armory on McCarrons Blvd. I read about you in the city hall news. Sounds like you are trying to restore it?
“Yes! That is us! And yes – we are hoping to rebuild and restore the building and move into the building by this fall!” I answered eagerly wanted to share the good news.
Skeptically, he raised one eyebrow and said, “Lady, have you seen that building?”
Confidently I smiled and replied, “Yes, I have! But have you read the book of Nehemiah?”
The story of Nehemiah has intrigued be ever since we embarked on a super-natural rebuilding project over two years ago. I have been following the narrative ever since, trying my hardest to learn from the wisdom of a restoration project in 444 B.C.
We first learned about the property from a board member, who knew we looking for a permanent home for our school. Since we were in the eleventh year of a ten-year lease, and had outgrown our current situation, our landlord decided not to renew our lease. We were in a save-our-school-moment and it was crucial for our school’s survival that we find a new home. We had looked at, toured, and even attempted to purchase one property when a board member sent an email about a location.
It was an abandoned 55,000 square foot armory, owned by the US National Guard, currently in disarray. The building was vacant and vandalized. It was boarded up and both an eye-sore and bother to the neighborhood. The building was situated on nine acres of land, also overgrown and neglected. All past plans for the property had fallen through despite the city’s best intentions to level the building and put up high-density housing in its place.
Truly the wall had been broken and the gates had been burned.
I had my first showing of the property in February of 2018. It was a cold day in Minnesota but the building inside was colder and darker than the outside temperature – and that is saying a lot. I went inside the building alone with my cellphone flashlight. I remember the emotion of excitement, fear, and suspicion all mingled into one thought – “what am I doing here?” Besides being dimly lit and shuffling along, I remember the mixed smells of standing toilet water, damp walls, and motionless air. My feet found shell-casing bumps left from the years of canine-training and artillery practicing. Particle board walls were placed in random places along with thousands of yards of metal cages for weapon storage. I tentatively called out for my real estate agent – “Peter?? Peter??”” From the darkness emerged five guys – two real estate agents who represented me and three, no-nonsense, military men who represented themselves. It was completely intimidating to say the least.
Despite that first encounter being one of the strangest in my life – I went home that night, took out yellow legal pad paper and accurately drew what I believed could be the new blueprint for our school. With God’s help, I could visual a completely restored and redeemed building – absolutely perfect for our people. The kitchen and library have since found a new space from the original drawing – but all other rooms are completely in-tact from that first download.
But, it wasn’t as easy as all of that. First, the US Military had to accept our low-ball offer, much lower than their posted sale price. Second, we needed to raise the money to even buy the building and land. Third, we had to find a bank willing to finance the entire construction project. Fourth, even if all of the first three hurdles were miraculously overcome, the city would have to approve the sale and change the zoning. The city would only agree if the neighbors did. Fifth, the neighbors had been presented with a survey a few years earlier. The consensus was to remove the old building and replace it. We would have to have neighborhood support for such a change. Finally, if we ever had the chance to get this far - we would have to restore a building we were buying, in the dark, literally and figuratively, with little or no information about what laid quietly beneath the soil, or glazed tiles since its original construction in 1936.
The US Military, after several rounds of discussion, and some face-to-face encounters – agreed to our sale price.
A Family Foundation stepped up and generously offered to fund the purchase of the property and building – offering cash at the closing.
A local bank, known for its faith-filled endeavors and philanthropic ways agreed to finance a short-term construction loan.
The City Council, unanimous voted to change the zoning and approved our plans to commence with a remodel of the armory.
The neighbors were invited by mailed invitation from the city, to an open-town-hall meeting, where we were allowed to present our ideas. (Prior to the meeting, we also went door to door to over 100 homes. We brought the children from Hand In Hand, dressed in their uniforms and warm smiles. They knocked and said “Hello! We would like to be your new neighbors!” The invitation worked. Many came to our Neighborhood Meeting and we served our special book-club cookies, gluten-free, chocolate chip).
Our architect, builder and designer, all worked together step by step to ensure that the entire project from the foundation up, original wood framing, steel studs and brick walls, were restored efficiently and
It took Nehemiah 52 days to rebuild the walls. It took us 52 weeks. We closed on the property in July 2019. We completed the first two phases of construction and received a temporary Certificate of Occupancy in July 2020.
How did this happen?
B y t h e h e l p o f t h e L o r d , o u r G o d .
There was a prayer team. This prayer team literally prayed for over one year, every day, for the project. Prayer walks happened. Daily prayer reports went out. Chris Berg, our Community Engagement Specialist, was the leader of the charge in this regard. Enough words cannot be spoken over the impact she had on this project from a spiritual and physical viewpoint. We are all forever grateful for her and her leadership.
There were work teams. They came when “all calls” were made. Painting, cleaning, moving, sweeping, lifting, moving-again, weeding, planting, pruning, digging, clearing-again, landscaping, designing. Every hand mattered. There were big hands. And little hands. Working hands and praying hands. Together – hand in hand – next to each – we rebuilt the walls. We are so grateful for staff members, their families, and members of our community who provided the consistent draw of volunteer labor throughout the entirety of the project.
The professional workers are also to be commended. The building turned out so beautiful mostly in part to the excellent craftmanship, management, and expertise of those hired to the job over the last year. We are so grateful and we honor them! A special thanks to Vanguard Builders for the excellence in project managing, helping us to finish Phase 1 & 2, under-budget and on-time.
The Donors and Tradition Bank, who provided the temporary Construction Loan should be mentioned along with the others. Without Tradition, Veritas, IDC, Manella Family, Warner Stellian and many, many more to provide the funds, big or small, this whole endeavor would have remained a dream and never a reality. God used these individuals and their generosity to advance this project and fund it.
This is our Nehemiah Rebuilding Project. This is our story and testimony.