VIRGINIA — The contrasts couldn’t have been more apparent. The old building, once a giant recreation center, saw visitors walking in on polished basketball floorboards. A build-out into office space left employees spread across five levels with no central public greeting area.

“I often ran into people wandering around down here, wondering where to go,” said Paula Stocke, St. Louis County’s point person in its northern office building.

Beginning Monday, visitors will be directed to go across First Street to St. Louis County’s new $19 million Government Services Center. The center greets visitors with a soaring atrium and appears to be an energy marvel. It will serve residents in eastern Iron Range communities, including Aurora, Eveleth and other parts radiating out from Virginia all the way to Ely, said Stocke, the children and family services director in charge of the majority of the building’s nearly 300 occupants.

The two-year project is part of a countywide plan to consolidate and streamline its services and not force residents to hunt across towns to find what they need. Its construction follows updates to buildings in Hibbing and Duluth.

“A lot of people who come in here are in distress already,” Tony Mancuso, the county’s property management director, said. “And if you have to send them all over, it adds to the stress.”

Mancuso and Stocke led the News Tribune on a tour of the facility last week. Employees were filing in on cardboard walkways covering floors still needing to be polished. Several people were already working and many were carting boxes or pushing their chairs from the old office building to the new one.

That block-long portion of First Street, between Third and Fourth avenues, is permanently closed now. It will become a plaza with picnic areas, public art and green space leading into the entryway of the new building. An interesting aside: The exterior of the new building features jagged red relief panels intended to cast differing shadow lines at different times of the day down to the plaza.

“We call them dragon’s teeth,” said Jerry Hall, deputy director of property management, of the ingenious panels.

The old building will be demolished and turned into the employee parking lot serving the new center. The old place shares a wall with Virginia City Hall, so it will need to come down slowly this fall, said county spokeswoman Dana Kazel. A survey prior to construction found that 6,800 people encountered the old facility every month.

Total cost of the project rises to $23 million once property buyouts, demolitions and site preparations are considered. Max Gray Construction, based in Hibbing, handled the demolition work, site preparation and construction.

Inside the new 63,000-foot space three elements stick out: the ingenuity, the materials and the open spaces.

“Inspiration was drawn from the natural beauty of the Iron Range including iron ore and timber industries for the interior and exterior finish selections of the building,” said DSGW Architects of Duluth in an online summary describing the aesthetic.

Don’t look too long into the black abyss of tall, polished taconite stone tables in the main atrium lobby — lest one become captive to the universes seemingly contained within them.

“We saw this polished taconite stone at the Hibbing airport and had to have it,” Mancuso said.

One-of-a-kind, die-cut signs of rusted steel mark the public-facing counters for Environmental Services, Planning, Extended Services, Recorder, Veterans Services, Auditor and Assessor. Voters will go to the polls in the building.

An impressionistic steel mural at the center of the soaring atrium figures to gather visitors' gazes across the 75-year life expectancy of the building.

Other features include:

  • Exposed I-beams painted earthy blue.

  • Structural pillars wrapped in rough taconite stone, its many colors mortared together like bricks.

  • Well-crafted woodwork galore.

  • Dedicated nursing rooms for mothers.

  • Public art on the terrazzo floors that includes fetching designs of native fish.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Stocke asked, toting files in her arms.

The building will be heated with geothermal underneath. (There's no basement.) Everything else will be up top in a mechanical suite that opens to a fully solar-paneled roof, covered in white rubber so as not to absorb added heat from the sun. The solar will run the electric.

Inside the mechanical suite is a large skeletal mix of pipe and tubing belonging to a variable refrigerant flow system which uses an organic, vegetable-type oil to absorb or give off heat throughout the building depending on demand.

“If the north side needs heat and the south side’s a little warmer because the sun is out, this building transfers heat through a nontoxic refrigerant,” Mancuso said. “It moves the heat around the inside of the building.”

The system was popularized in places such as Japan and Germany, and eliminates the boiler/air-conditioning setup found in traditional buildings. There is a small gas-fired backup boiler, if necessary.

“We’re trying to do near net-zero energy in this building — that’s our goal,” Mancuso said. “We’ll see how it performs.”

The building will also present the county’s full array of services from its Public Health and Human Services division. It features private and forensic interview rooms, and a second floor of the building dedicated to the 180 people on the health and human services staff. A peek at their generally off-limits work space revealed open floor plans filled with cubicles. For "light equity," Stocke said, supervisors' offices are located on the interior of the floor plan. Corridors run along the windows and, together with a central staircase, are meant to encourage walking.

“From my perspective, it will lead to more collaboration within Public Health and Human Services,” Stocke said. “For example, a financial worker, a public health nurse and a social worker might all be working with the same family. It will be so much more efficient; we’ll be able to consult more quickly and swiftly here.”

Staff will have electric, adjustable sit-stand desks for their health, and are connected in ways they haven’t been before, including technologically with modern video interfacing systems that cut down on the need to travel.

Stocke confessed to a few nerves in advance of Monday’s opening day.

“There’s been amazing teamwork and it’s gone smoothly so far; I’m thankful for that," she said. “I think the people are thrilled to have a new space."

She targeted one particular area, where there were no fewer than three microwave ovens amid cafeteria seating.

Stocke concluded: “They’re looking forward to having an efficient kitchen.”