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Ryan Johnson, Published January 18 2014

Fargo photographer creates home from mid-century space in campus ministry building

FARGO - J. Earl Miller is no stranger to ambitious photography trips, traveling the back roads of North Dakota to document what most people never see.

But his latest work is the most ambitious yet – converting the former United Campus Ministry building near the North Dakota State University campus into his home.

“I actually consider this one really big art project,” he said. “But this is permanent, where it’s my live-in installation.”

Miller, a local photographer who works at the High Plains Reader, first found the space at 1239 12th St. N. last June, when he stopped by during a rummage sale.

The 37-year-old, who has lived in Fargo since he was 13, said he quickly fell in love with the building’s mid-century modern architecture circa 1961, including unique light fixtures, wooden ceilings, exposed beams and a large copper fireplace.

It also boasts an open floor plan that will be perfect for a studio space, he said.

“It’s just a really, really intriguing building,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a really big footprint, but there’s a lot of space here if it’s used right.”

Miller moved into the 1,600-square-foot building in mid-July, spending two weeks opening up walls and adding new insulation before he could start converting one part that had been several small offices into a bedroom and master bathroom.

He’s had some surprises along the way, including when the sewer pipe leading to the street out front collapsed last year.

“I was actually on my photo trip out in Utah, so I basically got to Utah and had to turn around and drive home because the sewer was backing up,” he said.

Still, he said the building has “good bones” and a lot of potential.

Work in progress

One of the first ways Miller put his own stamp on the building was also one of the most important steps in its conversion from a former church – removing the old United Campus Ministry signage that faced 12th Street North.

“I didn’t want to have to get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and perform church,” he joked.

It’s still clear that this wasn’t originally intended as a residence. There’s little storage, and during the winter, heat seeps through the commercial-grade windows that don’t live up to today’s efficiency standards.

But that past life of the building also was part of the charm, Miller said.

The bulk of the building is a wide-open room, with a wall of windows looking out the back, a large fireplace in one corner and a makeshift row of cabinets and appliances that he has since added making up a temporary kitchen area.

The main space also boasts high ceilings – an especially important feature for the 6-foot-9-inch Miller.

For now, he’s focusing his remodeling efforts on the smaller side of the building, where he’s finished most of his work to build a bedroom, master bathroom and laundry room.

That side features dark bamboo floors, in-floor heat, a large walk-in shower, modern bathroom vanity and a wall of closets in the bedroom.

Miller needs to get through a short list of finishing touches, such as adding trim boards, finishing the vanity backsplash, adding a shower door and putting doors up in the bedroom, which will make the wall of closets hidden once complete.

Once he gets through those details, he plans to focus on the main room, where he will redo walls, replace old windows and cut down the footprint of a large bathroom in one corner by the fireplace. Miller also plans to push the open kitchen back several feet to a back wall, which will make the large room feel even bigger.

He’s already done some work to clean up the exterior and said he hopes to eventually convert the large gravel parking lot out back into a greenspace. It would still leave him room for parking and a possible garage down the road, he said.

So far, Miller has been able to do almost all the remodeling himself, other than with the help of some friends from time to time.

“It’s all pretty basic work,” he said. “I haven’t had to rewire. We had to run some plumbing and stuff, but it’s all things that are pretty easily done.”

He’s made it a goal to not turn this project into a “big landfill spot,” which means he’s trying to reuse as much as possible. Cedar and redwood that was taken down from the inside of the building was given to local crafters, who will find a way to repurpose the good lumber.

Miller also used some old trimboards to create a unique table that now is being used as a computer desk.

Another goal is to be as eco-friendly as possible, whether it’s finding good insulation or taking his time in picking out the bamboo flooring, and said the biggest thing is to have patience and consult with architects, heating professionals and other experts before making any big decisions.

“You can find these products and things if you do your research and not just run down to Menards and buy the first thing that you see,” he said.

The self-described “clean freak” said there have been challenges, ranging from the minor – sheetrock dust is everywhere, even though he vacuums three or four times each week – to the more serious, such as the building’s lack of a proper air-conditioning system that meant the temperature climbed above 110 degrees last summer while he did demo work.

“I lost 15 pounds,” he said.

But it’s already a big improvement compared to his living arrangements from mid-July through late December, when he had to put his bed up in the middle of the wide-open main space of the building until he could get most of the construction work done in the bedroom.

Miller was able to show off his progress recently, hosting friends for a New Year’s Eve party.

There’s plenty of work left to do, and he said he’s cautious to guess when everything will be finished – he wants to take his time and do it right, not rush it or stress about not meeting a self-imposed deadline.

Still, Miller said the former ministry building already has been a good fit for him, his cat, Wicket, and dog, GoBee.

“Now, being that I have a bedroom and a master bathroom for the most part, it does feel like a home,” he said. “A home with a lot of work.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587