By Janet and Paul Rogerson previous story | next story | all stories
The Shelton School Board was the steward of an historic 1941 Art Deco gymnasium designed by prominent northwest architect Joseph Wohleb. After allowing significant deterioration by neglect, the Board announced in 2003 that it was considering demolition. The public reacted by forming The Friends of the Shelton Gymnasium, which began efforts to save and revitalize the gym. The School Board acquiesced to the public interest but voted to allow just nine months for the Friends to raise one million dollars and propose a revitalization plan. The Washington Trust immediately joined in the effort, placing the building on its 2003 Most Endangered Properties list, sending then-Board President Michael Sullivan out to speak with community leaders, and providing technical support to prevent loss of this significant facility.
The Shelton Gymnasium had heroic beginnings. The citizens of post-Depression Shelton, a small timber town, determined that their students – and the entire community – deserved a great gymnasium. Originally the funding of the classic Art Deco structure was to include Works Progress Administration (WPA) dollars matched by local bond funds. When WPA funding dried up, civic-minded voters approved a second bond proposal – again overwhelmingly, and built what a preservation architect has called “a temple to a gym.”
Despite constant student and community use since its opening in 1941, the School Board lacked commitment to maintain Shelton’s beloved “Brown Gym” once they’d built a new high school complex. With support from both the Washington and National Trusts and many other state and local partners, the Friends obtained a Determination of Eligibility for the National Register and nominated it, and completed a historic structures report, a feasibility study, and an estimate of rehabilitation costs. The Friends also employed legal steps to prevent demolition, but were unable to overcome the Board’s predetermined decision for just that. The Shelton Gymnasium was demolished in May 2005. The site now hosts two portable classrooms.
School facilities are often seen as significant social hubs and landmarks serving student educational and athletic programs, while also providing a venue for community activities. Communities will not be well-served by electing school board members who are blind to the intrinsic value of historic properties, and given power to abandon and demolish useful school-owned facilities long before their time.
The Shelton Gymnasium was the victim of just such a dilemma.
This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Please consider making a special gift
to the Washington Trust in honor of our accomplishments as we celebrate this year together! Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.
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