After beginning in a University of Montana basement more than 20 years ago, the Montana Natural History Center has completed work on its Hickory Street building that will serve the organization’s space needs well into the future.

“It’s exciting. We’re kind of poised on the next stage of growth,” said Whitney Schwab, development and marketing director for the nonprofit organization.

The $1 million, two-year project that revamped the building’s exterior and interior wrapped up this week. Because of grants and donations, the center didn’t accrue debt from the projects, Schwab said.

Even with the added indoor space and features, the center’s mission remains outdoors, said Arnie Olsen, the center’s executive director.

Each year, more than 300 area children participate in summer camp programs and the center has graduated between 24 and 48 Master Naturalists.

Programs for both children and adults are aimed at creating stewards for Montana’s outdoors.

“We want to connect people with nature,” Olsen said.

Although the center has been in existence since 1991, people often are unaware of it or its mission, he said.

“We want people to know who we are, what we do and where we are, and the building helps,” he added.

The near-to-downtown location and revitalized appearance already has drawn more attention to the center, which was last located at Fort Missoula, Schwab said.

In 2004, the center purchased the warehouse-style building at 120 Hickory St., but chose to do minor renovations to the building initially in favor of focusing attention and funding on programming, she said.

When a manufacturing tenant’s lease term was up, MNHC decided not to renew the agreement and instead sold part of the building to Five Valleys Land Trust.

Work to the building’s exterior wrapped up last fall with the installation of a large outdoor mural and massive energy efficiency improvements.

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A $200,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, along with $150,000 in local matching funds, made the interior work possible. Exhibits have been improved and a designated library space has been created, along with a large classroom and three leasable office spaces.

Before the work, the center had a small classroom that fit about 15 people, which was cramped with kids, teachers and community members during lectures and events.

While the small classroom remains, a large classroom capable of holding more than 70 people has been created upstairs. The space is complete with a large sink for specimen examination and wet lab use and a SMART Board for learning and presentations.

Because of the additional space, the center no longer will need to rent space from other organizations for its programming, Schwab said.

Downstairs, a green screen has been put in place in a designated room and a grant from the Steele-Reese Foundation is making possible a pilot program to extend programming via conference technology to teachers and classrooms in eastern Montana.

Other changes include several new specimens on exhibit from UM’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum and more hands-on activities for young visitors. Additionally, a mural has been added to the Kids Discovery Room.

Despite all the changes, features such as large wooden support beams harken back to the building’s industrial history, something intentionally kept through the renovations.

“So we’re saying this is an older building and we’re maintaining a little bit of that culture, Olsen said.

A grand reopening of the building is planned from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Friday as part of Missoula’s First Friday festivities. At 6 p.m., the new classroom will be dedicated as the Ellen Knight Sense of Wonder Classroom to honor the longtime supporter of the organization. Also, an exhibit of “Beloved Mountain” consisting of pieces focused on Mount Jumbo by artist Stephanie Frostad will be on display in the gallery.

For more information about the center, go to www.MontanaNaturalist.org.

Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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