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A $1 million renovation has converted what was once a dilapidated dairy barn into a premier event center in Eden Prairie, Minn. The exterior illumination offers the finishing touch.

Old barn reborn as showcase event site

People just can’t keep away from the cows.

It’s an accidental attraction that eccentric entrepreneur Steve Schussler created when he put 15 life-size, colorful fiberglass cows outside a dairy barn in Eden Prairie, Minn. They’ve spurred dozens of gawkers to stop and pet or pose with the cows.

They also inspired an even bigger idea for Schussler, nixing plans to use the 1940s-era barn he bought for storage.

Instead, he has created an event center – a sort of “barn meets bling” – for weddings, bar mitzvahs, fundraisers and other such events.

This is, after all, no average country barn.

The more than $1 million renovation to the building that will open to the public in February or March includes 35 crystal chandeliers, a silo-turned-wine cellar, vintage jukeboxes and theatrical lighting that includes illumination of the outside of the barn in a bright purple glow.

“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life, especially to share with Eden Prairie,” he said. “The goal is to make people smile and to share with everyone, instead of private space for my laboratories. There’s probably nothing like it in any barn in the United States.”

Schussler, 57, and his company, Schussler Creative Inc., are best known for dreaming up the 45 Rainforest Cafes and other wild-themed restaurants nationwide. Now he is taking his characteristic fanciful flair to the former farm fields, “bringing back to life” the barn in a new way.

Named Green Acres Event Center, the barn is already getting daily inquiries, and more than a dozen reservations have been made for 2013 and 2014.

It’s taken nearly three years to get to this point.

In 2010, the condemned barn faced extinction – it was in the way of a road-widening project along Pioneer Trail. Hennepin County initially planned to raze the barn to make way for drainage ponds, but history buffs argued that it should be preserved.

The county agreed to sell it – if anybody wanted it. Schussler offered the lone bid of $82,000.

His new purchase was in massive disarray.

Windowless and with a caved-in silo roof, it was coated in dirt and mouse and bird feces. He rebuilt the roof, added insulation and electricity, installed an elevator and made changes to get health and historical preservation approval, along with 15 agencies’ support.

The City Council unanimously gave its final approval Nov. 20.

“The city came really close to losing the whole thing. He saved the barn,” City Council Member Ron Case said. “It’s one of a kind.”

Case said this barn is one of only a half-dozen in the nation with the 1940s arch-roof architecture.

As for possible criticism about Schussler turning the iconic barn into something too over the top, both Case and Schussler say the project stayed true to the barn’s past. Schussler even got input from the son of the original owner.

“We haven’t touched the integrity,” Schussler said. “Just added my design touch.”

There’s a wine-and-cheese tasting area, two pianos, a warming kitchen for caterers to use and decor honoring the barn’s past – from pitchforks and a vintage 1942 tractor to 150 oil lanterns.

Joining the cows outside are eight fiberglass geese.

The Friends of Minnesota Barns, which advocates for barn preservation, recently presented Schussler its top award for non-agricultural adaptive reuse of a barn.

Some credit might have to go to residents who first planted the idea in Schussler’s head to use the barn as more than just private storage. Besides paying him weekly visits, residents sent him letters praising those eye-catching cows and urging him to do more with the barn.

“It’s become an obsession to share,” he said. “We put our heart and soul in it.”

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