It’s hard not to notice the sweeping upgrades being finished on the old railroad warehouse on Hickory Street that is now home to the Montana Natural History Center and Five Valleys Land Trust.

That’s the point.

Most of the building’s aging, hodgepodge of exterior material – which in places included nothing more than a single aluminum layer as the wall – has been replaced with a modern stucco and steel siding facade of natural green and brown hues that wrap around the building, blending it into the native landscaping and river rocks around it.

Five Valleys’ name and logo are lit above its office entrance, and the the Natural History Center plans to add signage in the near future.

The exterior overhaul and energy-efficiency updates to the building came after FVLT upgraded its side of the space thanks to a unique donation of resources from longtime supporters Ruth and Kim Reineking.

MNHC followed suit in May, beginning its outdoor upgrades after being awarded a Kendeda Fund grant.

It was a thoughtful process to help increase the visibility of the nonprofits, which have in recent years secured ownership of the building and want the outside of their permanent home to represent the work that’s going on inside.

A focal point of MNHC’s upgrades is a one-of-kind “butterfly roof” that guards the new front entrance with two wings that extend up toward the sky and come together at an angle that allows rainwater to flow into a native landscape area below.

The butterfly roof was conceptualized by Lucas Dupuis of Sustainable Building Design and Moretti Architecture, and welded by Kim Reineking.

MNHC plans to commission a mural for the open 16-by-16-foot space at the center of the museum’s outdoor space.

“One of the reasons we launched into this project was to help the community know who we are, what we do and where we live. We’ve been in Missoula since 1991 – you’d think people would know where we are but that’s not always the case,” said Arnie Olsen, MNHC executive director. “We think it’ll really help if we have a striking building, if we have a mural and the beautiful butterfly roof, people will begin to know that’s the Natural History Center. You’ll be able to see it from the Orange Street Bridge. It’s hard to do when you have an old warehouse.”

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At Five Valleys, the outside upgrades were followed by a complete renovation of the inside office space. The interior now includes a layout of offices that is efficiently configured to help the land conservation organization get its work done, said Beth Cogswell, director of operations.

It’s a warm space that incorporates the existing steel beams and polished concrete floors of the original building.

“We work with private landowners; a lot of times landowners come from all of the five valleys, (and) now we have a nice welcoming space that I think really speaks to who we are rather than being in a rented office downtown that might not have everything we need,” Cogswell said.

The energy-efficiency upgrades to the building’s exterior include increased insulation made from recycled newspapers, new Energy Star-rated windows and synthetic stucco material.

The improvements have helped regulate FVLT’s heating bill, which comes to less than $10 per person each month, Cogswell said.

Both organizations will have office space they can lease to create another revenue stream.

The exterior upgrades on the MNHC portion of the building are close to being complete, and the organization is in the running for a Murdoch grant to help it complete indoor renovations that will double its square footage.

The second phase of MNHC’s renovations would add a 75-person classroom upstairs equipped with videoconferencing technology so it can present its programs to rural students and teachers across Montana.

“The single biggest hurdle has been aspiring to be a statewide organization, but it’s hard to reach out – it’s so expensive,” said Hank Fischer, board chair. “This will really allow us to bring the resources we have in Missoula, especially the association with UM, and get into classrooms all over the state.”

The new exhibit and library area downstairs will help accommodate larger crowds that show up when big-name speakers come to share their knowledge, said Whitney Schwab, MNHC development and marketing director.

The indoor renovations at MNHC are set to begin this year and be completed by 2013 provided there are no major construction or funding delays. MNHC stills needs to raise $75,000 to complete the project, Schwab said.

The public campaign to commission a professional artist to complete the outdoor mural will also begin soon, Schwab said.

A Kendeda Fund grant allowed MNHC to buy the building at 120 Hickory St. in 2004. The building’s proximity to downtown, McCormick Park and the Clark Fork riverfront made it a good fit for the nonprofit, which works to connect people with nature through education. Nearby outdoor recreation opportunities often act as staging areas for the center’s summer camps, Schwab said.

After an initial remodel, MNHC moved in and rented the east side as warehouse space in 2005. When the tenant left, MNHC decided to sell the property rather than renovate and lease it.

“It wasn’t in good enough condition to lease for anything but warehouse space. We just decided if we can sell it, we can get the revenue now when we need it and find the right partner,” Olsen said.

The right partner was the Reinekings. Kim Reineking, a contractor, loved the building’s location, too, and thought the two nonprofits might work well together.

The Reinekings bought a portion of the building’s east end from MNHC in 2011 and set up a 20-year lease-to-own agreement with FVLT.

“It’s what we had in mind,” Reineking said of the work so far.

As the upgrades to the shared building continue, both FVLT and MNHC plan to further leverage the partnership to streamline operating expenses, so more time, energy and resources can go to mission fulfillment.

They already have many overlapping memberships. FVLT has included MNHC education programs in recent conservation easement celebrations, Cogswell said.

Olsen has been enthusiastic about the collaboration from the beginning, when he helped MNHC negotiate the sale of the Five Valleys space with the Reinekings.

“It seemed to me,” Olsen said, “like we had people who believed in each others’ missions.”

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