- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - The Laramie Plains Civic Center - a huge building encompassing an entire city block and housing more than 40 local organizations, agencies and studios. While its tenants call it home, some do not know the vast history and hidden treasures of the nearly 140-year-old building.

When first constructed, the old school was at the far east side of Laramie surrounded by empty land and small farm plots. An iron fence circled the building, filled with trees and a trimmed lawn.

“This was considered way out in the countryside,” Theater Manager David Soules said. “People were complaining because it was so far away from town.”

Known at the time as the East Side School, it was the first brick-and-mortar school in the state and dwarfed many of the surrounding houses and farmsteads, said Melissa Daniele, Civic Center executive director.

“That was a real boom time if you think about the history of the railroad,” she said. “You had a lot of people here all of the sudden.”

The original 1878 façade is now inside the building - the entrance where the original doors were now opens into Laramie Head Start at the end of the north lobby, the Laramie Boomerang reported (https://bit.ly/1XkUVkZ).

“The original structure is in the center of this block,” Daniele said.

“They covered (the walls) in stucco to make it match. They reframed the windows to match the new windows. The arched windows are all gone, and the roof is gone.”

The 1926 addition added what is now the Gryphon Theatre, the Kenny Sailors gym on the north side of the building and the underground pool, along with a third story to the original building and other classroom space.

The 1939 addition added the entire southern portion of the building, including the south gym and the west side of the building, Daniele said.

The building was used as the high school up through the early 1970s and as a junior high school until about 1979, after which it became the Laramie Plains Civic Center through a joint powers board agreement.

“There’s never been a time when this building wasn’t in use, but it’s never been used to the capacity it is now,” Daniele said. “The last 6-7 years is when you’ve seen a sharp uptick in occupancy.”

Previous tenants include the Laramie County Community College-Albany County Campus, the Department of Motorized Vehicles and the Department of Workforce Services.

“This building has really been instrumental to all of these agencies that have served the community over the years,” Daniele said.

Some areas of the building, specifically the entire third floor, were neglected during much of this time. A major renovation project allowed many rooms to be occupied, but some still show the damage done after more than 35 years of emptiness. Leaks through the ceiling and other problems have relegated the spaces to storage only.

We don’t really know why the third floor was shut down and used for trash and storage,” Daniele said.

The renovated rooms did keep the original flooring and other fixtures from the building.

There are many places in the Civic Center hidden away from the public eye. Some are unsafe; others are not renovated or are not available for public use. These nooks and crannies make the Civic Center unique to Laramie.

The basement space underneath the Gryphon Theatre was once used as an indoor rifle range for junior high students. Like many other spaces in the Civic Center, it is now used as storage for various tenants. Most of the shooting range space now has props for Relative Theatrics.

An unfinished dirt path with exposed piping, originally meant as a locker room, leads to the underground pool - a completely dark room with no lights or windows. Original skylights were covered long ago, as the pool was never actually filled with water.

“You can’t use this pool,” Daniele said. “They built it below the water table. You can’t drain it.”

Graffiti from break-ins years ago now fill the pool and surrounding walls.

One wall of the underground area is the foundation from the original 1878 building, with uneven stones mortared together into a solid wall.

The pool was eventually covered with a false floor and used as a wrestling room and cheerleader practice area.

Three 10-foot boilers in the basement underneath the Kenny Sailors Gym provided heat for the entire building until 2003. A coal shoot still exists, although the boilers were converted to use natural gas at some point. New heating devices now sit only feet from the old massive hunks of metal - parts of the wall had to be torn down to get the machines down the coal shoot and into the basement.

The Kenny Sailors Gym, previously known as the North Gym or, after the 1939 addition, the Girl’s Gym, was finished in 1928. The bleachers were used up until the building became a junior high.

“Kenny Sailors took his first jump shot in competition in this gym,” Daniele said. “During the dedication as the Kenny Sailors Gym, an old lady came up and said, ‘This is really great, but you’re dedicating the wrong gym. This is the Girl’s Gym.’ I said, ‘No, the Boy’s Gym was finished in fall of 1939. Kenny Sailors graduated in the spring of ‘39, so he never played in the other gym.”

Shower spigots still hang above tiled drains in the women’s locker room underneath the gym. The space was recently painted to make it more easily inhabitable.

“We had a group of tenants who were artists that wanted to be down here and use this as their art space,” Daniele said. “We were totally game. But then the city said, ‘No, we aren’t going to let you put a door to the outside for an emergency exit because of where our gas lines are.”

A pottery workshop is also on the ground floor, originally created after a contract with the city was made. While currently unused, Daniele said they are looking for possible teachers for classes. A group of artists also occupy what was originally the boy’s locker room.

The Phoenix Ballroom on the second floor was restored to its original state in late 2015. Walls added throughout the years dissecting the ballroom were removed, and the original walnut floor was refinished.

A conference room on the second floor, which still has the original slate chalkboard, was an English classroom, Daniele said.

“One of my favorite stories was, there was a male teacher here that, if he caught you chewing gum, you had to bring it and put it on the chalkboard ledge, so you had a row of gum,” she said. “At the end of class, you had to come and go take someone else’s gum.”

The band room is the only room on the fourth floor. Huge windows fill the room with sunlight, even with the 15-foot-high ceilings.

“Most people don’t even know there is a fourth floor,” Daniele said. “Every time people see this, they want it to be their office or their flat.”

Many people want to turn rooms of the building into apartments, Daniele said, but lack of plumbing to provide showers and toilets is a major hindrance.

There are also no Americans with Disabilities Act required access to the fourth floor, so turning the space into a public area is unlikely in the near future.

The band room also has roof access, although the door has to be propped open once outside - it only opens from inside. Besides communications equipment, including a Union Wireless tower, a rooftop vent has names going as far back as the ‘40s etched into it. Parts of the original façade are also visible from the roof.

Some areas of the building are still a mystery. The basement of the original building is still hidden away, with several entrances sealed by later additions.

“There’s a hatch in the Laramie Head Start Kitchen closet,” she said. “There’s a utility closet, and you can remove a floor panel, and there’s a ladder that goes down.

“None of us have ever been in the basement of the original 1878 section,” she continued. “But according to the maps, there is a basement. And if you look at photos of the original building, there are basement buildings that have been covered.”

Older photos of the building show a room not present in the current Civic Center, which Soules thinks could be hidden in the basement.

“There’s a room with a stage in it as well, and I think that might be the basement,” he said. “From my understanding, the seats that are in the balcony (of the Gryphon Theatre) came from that room.”

While preserving the historic aspects of the building is now a top priority, it was not always so in the past.

“Just seeing some of the stuff they’ve done makes me think (historic preservation) wasn’t too important,” Soules said. “Acoustic ceiling tiles in the theater used to run in every classroom and hallway to this building. During the great asbestos scare, they came in and ripped all those tiles out, thinking they had asbestos in them. It turns out, the tiles were negative - it was the glue holding the tiles that were positive. They actually exposed the asbestos when, if they had done nothing, it would have been fine.

Now, every time a new room is restored, the ceiling has to be abated to ensure the glue is safe.

Remains of the original slate chalkboards rest in an unused third-story room.

“One of the former directors - if you wanted slate, someone could go to his office and ask for slate,” Daniele said. “He’d say, ‘Do you have five bucks?’ Then he came up with a hammer and just break slate off from chalkboards.”

The original doors were also sold during this time.

When Alec Shea became executive director of the Civic Center in 2010, he began searching out grants and other funding sources to begin major upkeep and renovation projects and brought new life to the nearly 140-year-old building, Daniele said.

“He was brave enough to come into an aged facility that needed a lot of work,” she said.


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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