Custom Doors Transform Train Station Into Brewery in Fargo, North Dakota
by Jenessa McAllister, writer for the architecture & design industry
Conversations buzz and beer flows from the tap. In the distance, a train roars past. The train’s presence is subtle and fleeting, but not lacking significance. After all, the building that’s now home to a brewery and taproom spent its early years as a locomotive maintenance facility.
Brewhalla is one of the latest breweries in Fargo, North Dakota, and it’s located in a building that’s older than the state itself. Named in honor of their Scandinavian heritage, the team at Drekker Brewing Company opened Brewhalla, its second location, in September 2018. With features heavily influenced by the building’s history and an entrance flanked with sizeable picturesque custom doors, the structure now appears breathtaking and effortless, but the road getting there was anything but.
The Northern Pacific Railway Company built the 11,700 sq.ft. building that houses Brewhalla in 1883. It was primarily a foundry and repair building for railcars and locomotives, and later served as a storage and warehouse facility. When Kevin Bartram of MBA Architects, Fargo, purchased the abandoned building, he had a vision in mind. “Bartram always knew he wanted to make this his home and live in the north end of the building,” said Darin Montplaisir, one of Drekker’s four co-founders. “He had envisioned a brewery in the other half of the building, so he approached us and we jumped on the opportunity.”
With one Drekker location already established in downtown Fargo, a second location less than a mile away was a no-brainer. “We were running out of space downtown,” Montplaisir said. “It was perfect timing, and we had always thought that building would make an awesome brewery. Everything about it is so unique, and we knew we wanted to move in.”
Keeping the natural, original elements was one of the key goals of MBA Architects and the Drekker team when they started design in the summer of 2017. Brewhalla’s structure is built with masonry load-bearing walls and a timber wood-framed roof structure. Besides adding necessary structural reinforcements, most of the wood and brick in the building is original. “We were surprised by how much the engineers let us keep,” Montplaisir said. “It was important to us to keep the building as close to original as possible. We love that about it.”
Part of the restoration process was finding new uses for old elements of the building. Some of the original nuts and bolts were used in installing the new wood pieces, and the taproom tables are made from extra wood from the building. Outside, a repurposed footing now serves as a bench beside the firepit. Even the skylights, which line the roof of the building, have an old purpose, as they served as smoke shoots for the train exhaust. Old train tracks that were discovered below layers of concrete will be used in a future fixture in the taproom.
“People ask us how we got the brewery to look so unique,” Montplaisir said. “They can’t believe it when we tell them that’s the original.” Authenticity played a key role in restoration of Brewhalla. That’s why, when it came to the building’s doors, MBA Architects knew who to call.
In its early days, trains entered the maintenance building through one of the three large doors along the east side of the building. The openings are now fitted with three custom-designed doors that each serve a different purpose. The middle door is a standard customer entrance door. The doors on either side of the patron entrance required a fully custom solution and were designed and installed by Midland Door Solutions. The West Fargo-based company specializes in custom hydraulic and bi-fold doors. In addition to architecture and design, they create and install doors for the aviation, industrial, and agricultural industries. Customized solutions are Midland’s specialty, so Brewhalla was a perfect fit for their next undertaking.
“Unique applications like this allow us to showcase our creativity,” said Jason Myrvik, Midland Door Solutions general manager. “We were excited to take on a local project and work with the customer to create the look and feel they were striving for.”
MBA Architects’ team had seen photos of other Midland custom doors, and knew they’d be a good fit for the unique situation. “We performed historic research and found drawings of similar doors in other NPRC buildings,” said James Monson, architect at MBA Architects. “However, we wanted the benefits of modern technologies.”
MBA worked with Midland to create a truly beautiful set of oversized doors. They each measure 12’ wide by 16’ tall and weigh 2,300 lbs. After several discussions between the architect and structural engineer, the team at Midland proposed a design to MBA and Drekker. They mirrored the pattern and elements of the main entrance door. Heavy, dark lines contrast the windowpanes and pop against the light brick building.
“The goal was to mimic the contour of the arches on the openings and custom windows in the middle arch,” Myrvik said. “So we ensured our glass followed the curvature of the arch. We utilized aluminum grids embedded in the glass to create the same look as the mullions in the windows. This helped create a cohesive look for all three sections.”
The southern door is a vertical bi-fold door that serves as a shipping and receiving entrance. It’s made with heavy-gauge steel tubing and has a fully automated operating system. The doors open and close quietly in seconds, a critical necessity when the doors are used throughout the day while customers are present. Forklifts bring loads of supplies, beer, and trash through the doors upwards of ten times per hour.
The door on the north side of the building is also a vertical bi-fold, but operates manually with a pin-and-latch system. The handles inside the doors make it easy for one person to open them manually. The north side of Brewhalla features a patio area with outdoor seating and a parking area for food trucks, which makes the large opening ideal. “We plan on having the door open during warm summer nights,” Montplaisir said. “Being able to walk back and forth from the firepit to the bar will be convenient when the weather is nice.” Alternatively, both doors have a weathertight seal to help to combat the cold North Dakota winter weather.
When it comes to working with the structure of an old building, symmetry is never guaranteed. The settling and shifting of a building over time posed challenges for the contractors installing new pieces into an old building.
“They had a hard time framing everything in here,” Montplaisir said. “We have a big cooler in the back that doesn’t sit up against the wall. The bottom of the cooler is 10” away from the wall and the top of the cooler is touching the wall. Everything in the building is a little crooked.”
The arches for the door aren’t symmetric, either, meaning the team at Midland had to precisely measure each door to ensure the perfect fit. Because the building is constructed out of uneven brick, the team had to laser-measure the arches incrementally across the opening. They then had to lay out the measurements in modeling software, average out the dimensions and create symmetric-looking doors.
“Not only were the walls not perfectly straight, but we were attaching large heavy doors to the structure,” Myrvik said. “The building wasn’t built for the weight of these doors. The wall was angled in and not structurally capable to handle the doors. The structural engineer designed support columns that ran from the floor to the roof truss. We then anchored our frame to the supports.”
After measuring and manufacturing the doors, delivery, and installation took only a couple of days. Each of the two doors took a team of two men and roughly 16 hours to install. From there, they tested the mechanical components and performed operational tests on the doors.
When people enter the parking lot of Brewhalla, their awe is visible. Customers are able to enjoy their beer and conversation, looking around the taproom with wide eyes. While they won’t be interrupted by the sounds of opening and closing delivery doors, they may occasionally hear a passing train.