Akron Gymnasium

Location: Akron
County: Washington County
Date Constructed: 1938-1940
Built by: WPA

Description

The Akron Gymnasium consists of four sections: a two-story classroom section on the east side; a gymnasium/auditorium at the center; a two-story backstage/ dressing room section on the west side of the gymnasium; and a single-story garage/shop section on the west side of the backstage/dressing room section. A domed concrete roof covers the gymnasium while the other sections have flat roofs. The gymnasium originally shared a wall with the high school, which was located on the south side of the building. The school district demolished the high school around 1970, leaving a rough brick wall exposed.

The domed-roof is the gymnasium’s most distinctive feature. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) project file describes the gymnasium as a “reinforced concrete structure, with unique domed roof.” The roof is built up of two rows of bar joist and two reinforced concrete purlins. A poured concrete slab over a wire mesh serves as the ceiling and roof. Roll roofing covers the concrete slab on the exterior and sprayo-flake on the interior. The concrete roof featured skylights, which were the primary source of illumination for the gymnasium. These skylights have been covered but the openings remain. The reinforced concrete structure has a red clay brick veneer. All floors are reinforced concrete resting on bar joists and screeded to receive wood flooring.

Significance

The Akron Gymnasium meets Criterion A in the area of Social History for its association with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislative agenda to rescue the United States from the Great Depression. This agenda included the creation of an unprecedented number of policies, programs, and agencies to provide relief, employment, conserve natural resources, and assist in construction of public works—all with the greater goal of stimulating the devastated economy. Constructed by the WPA, the Akron Gymnasium presents an important record of the federal relief programs administered in Colorado’s eastern plains during the Great Depression. Though the dire economic conditions of the Depression affected all of Colorado, drought and dust storms hit the agricultural-based economy of the Eastern Plains especially hard. The construction of the gymnasium provided much-needed employment in Washington County. The New Deal construction programs emphasized projects providing civic, educational, and health benefits for a community. During these difficult times, New Deal agencies also recognized the psychological benefits of recreational and cultural activities.

Additionally, the Akron Gymnasium meets Criterion A for its significance in the area of Education. Educational facilities were a major focus of New Deal construction and a combination auditorium/gymnasium was a common New Deal project. The WPA created a needed modern facility for the Washington County School District providing a gymnasium with a full-size court, a stage for use by theater and music groups, additional classroom space, and a shop facility. The gymnasium served the high school until 1964.

The Akron Gymnasium also meets Criterion A for its significance in the area of Entertainment/ Recreation. The building is a good example of the efforts of the WPA to boost morale during the Depression through the construction of buildings that the entire community could enjoy. Though its primary function was for the high school, local residents attended sporting events, theatrical performances, and other events in the gymnasium/auditorium space. This large, multi-use gymnasium and auditorium space was an important addition to the social life of the small town of Akron, which had a population around 1,400 in 1940.

The Akron Gymnasium meets Criterion C in the area of Architecture. It is a good example of WPA Modernistic design. Concrete construction and modern styling predominated in New Deal projects in northeast Colorado as opposed to the stone buildings in rustic and revival styles that predominated in southeast Colorado. Eugene Groves, an established Denver architect recognized for his innovative use of concrete, designed the gymnasium. This was unusual since WPA staff engineers typically designed projects, creating buildings more conventional in design. The striking feature of the gymnasium is its domed concrete roof with skylights. The gymnasium remains a striking modern landmark in Akron.

Historical Background

Gymnasiums were among the most popular New Deal projects on Colorado’s eastern plains. Among the communities receiving new gymnasiums were Hugo, Stratton, Burlington, Seibert, Haxtun, Kim, Holly, Fleming, Otis, Branson, Frederick, Two Buttes, Granada, Hartman, and Hoehne. Most of these communities had limited gymnasium facilities previously, often too small for a regulation basketball court. The new gymnasiums allowed school districts to improve their physical education instruction and host games. The gymnasiums also typically included a stage at one end of the playing court so that they could serve a dual purpose as auditoriums, providing a performance space for school theater and music performances. The gymnasiums included dressing rooms, restrooms, and often a classroom or two. However, the gymnasiums were not just for student use. These buildings also served as community centers (they were often the largest public building in a community), hosting a variety of celebrations, dances, and other community activities.

In 1936, the Washington County School Board decided to pursue a New Deal project to construct a new gymnasium for the high school in Akron. The first action of the school board was choosing an architect. In December, the board chose Eugene Groves, an established architect of educational buildings in Colorado. Eugene Groves (1882-1967) was born in Dana, Indiana and moved to Denver in 1914. He practiced architecture for five decades, gaining renown for his design of numerous educational and government facilities in Colorado. Groves incorporated a variety of styles in his buildings including Art Deco, Art Moderne, Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance Revival, and Colonial Revival.

The Washington County School Board was familiar with Groves’ previous work. In an article from December 24, 1936 announcing the gymnasium project, the Akron News-reporter described Groves as “extremely well-known and reliable,” and reported that “several Akron people have had the pleasure of inspecting buildings of Mr. Groves’ design and are very well pleased with the style of edifice he builds.” The article mentioned Groves’ many buildings on the campus of Colorado State College in Fort Collins, the Golden High School, the Mitchell Elementary School in Golden, and the William M. Smith High School in Aurora. Groves had also designed the Fairview School in Denver, the Bethune School, the Lowell Elementary School in Grand Junction, and the Grand Junction High School. The Washington County School District was also likely familiar with Groves’ recent courthouse projects in eastern Colorado: the Phillips County Courthouse (1935) and the Morgan County Courthouse (1936).

The school district also chose Groves for his innovative use of concrete materials. According to the Akron News-reporter: “One of the outstanding features of his work is the featuring of a new type of ceiling which does away with the conventional truss and cantilever types of bracing the roof. It consists of a method of lacing steel rods together, which not only makes the building stronger, but also actually decreases the cost.” The skylights were also part of the original plan. Groves initially planned that these would be the only windows in the main section; the skylights would “let in ample light for use of the structure in the daytime and also eliminate any tendency to glare as the glass is heavily frosted.”

Groves designed three concrete houses in Denver during the 1930s: the Holland House (1932), the Sherman House (1935), and the Nordlund House (1938). In December 1936, Groves submitted a patent application for a new concrete construction technique would eliminate all woodwork and rely on pre-formed concrete structural members. The goal was to create a simple, economic, and efficient means to construct durable, fireproof buildings. This system relied on precast concrete studs and beams that supported concrete slab floors and wire mesh walls covered with concrete stucco. In 1936, Groves established the Concreter Corporation to construct buildings using this process.

Concrete was a common construction material for New Deal projects in northeastern Colorado. The WPA constructed Art Deco style gymnasiums in Burlington, Hugo, Seibert, and Frederick. Groves’ domed roof was unusual and innovation, creating a spacious gymnasium and auditorium space lit by skylights. The domed roof is a feature also found in Groves concrete houses. However, except for the domed roof, the exterior appearance of the Akron Gymnasium is simple and traditional. Groves employed no ornamentation on the exterior, likely reflecting the fact that to school district was chiefly concerned with square footage and constructing as large a building as possible. Red brick covered the concrete structure of the gymnasium so that it would blend with the adjacent red brick high school. Groves could take his experimentation with concrete further in his residential designs. In the Nordlund House, Groves employed concrete for the structure as well as the finish and decoration, creating concrete cabinets, built-ins, window and door frames, balusters, and decoration.

The school district negotiated a contract with Groves that made the cost of the design negligible unless the building was actually constructed. The hiring of an established architect was atypical for the construction of Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects, but common for Public Works Administration (PWA) projects. This “pump-primer” program aimed to stimulate the economy through large construction projects. PWA projects provided jobs for architects, general contractors, and others in the building trades. For WPA projects, the local sponsors and WPA engineers typically prepared the building plans and relied on unemployed, unskilled labor. Initially, the school district planned the gymnasium as a PWA project. The Washington County School Board received notification of a $23,850 PWA grant on June 22, 1938. The school district then decided to try to transfer the project to the WPA, since the WPA did not require as much of a local contribution as the PWA. The school district could only afford to contribute $26,000 to the project. If the WPA awarded more funds to the project than the PWA, then the district would be able to get a larger addition at the same cost to the high school.

On July 8, 1938, the district submitted a WPA project application (665-84-2-68) for the construction of a new gymnasium. The WPA approved the project a few days later. The new gymnasium would also include a stage, classrooms, and office space. The project included demolishing an old single story and basement portion on the north side of the high school and reclaiming these materials for use in the new structure. After demolition, WPA workers would grade the site and lay new sidewalks. WPA workers would also convert the existing high school gymnasium space, located in the basement of the original building, into classrooms. The total cost was $54,176, with $28,056 in federal funds and the remaining $26,120 from the school district. Groves received an architect’s fee of $2000. According to the application: “Present school facilities are entirely inadequate due to the large increase in high school attendance the past two years. Due to drought conditions many school taxes are delinquent and it has been impossible to finance enlargement of facilities. It is preferable to operate this project as a WPA project for the reason there are no general contractors in or near Washington County. And the employment of an outside contractor would involve considerable unnecessary expense as well as making it difficult for such an outside contractor to employ Washington County people at the expense of his regular employees. Construction work on Washington County Court House by WPA has been extremely satisfactory and the same crew can successfully carry on this work.”

Construction began August 27, 1938 with an estimated completion date of April 30, 1939. According to the Akron Newsreporter, the project would employ forty WPA workers in shifts of twenty men with the men working eleven days each month. In September 1938, a WPA inspector reported that work on demolishing the old addition was progressing rapidly. The inspector said that the project supervisor, Chris Christensen was an experienced building contractor. The school district supplemented his WPA salary. The WPA temporarily suspended work on a road project elsewhere in the county in order to expedite construction of the gymnasium. This resulted in long travel for some workers, but the district provided transportation. In January 1939, a WPA inspector reported that the old addition had been wrecked, the basement walls had been rebuilt, and the east and north walls were complete for the first story. At this time, the operations consisted of “forming beams and placing steel for second floor and placing bar joists on first floor.” The inspector concluded, “this is a good example of what can be done with experienced foremen and common labor.” An inspection from October 1939 reports that the building was nearly complete and “presents a very nice appearance. . . . All work is very good.”

The district held a dedication ceremony on December 14, 1939. Paul Shriver, State Administrator for the WPA, gave the dedication address. Shriver spoke about the achievements of the WPA and the cooperation between the people, Congress, and WPA workers necessary for the program to be a success. He also addressed the war in Europe, commenting that America’s efforts to the put the unemployed to work on “projects for the betterment of the country” was much better than all those in Europe employed in making “instruments of destruction.” More that 600 Washington County residents attended the ceremony. According to the Akron Newsreporter, the attendees were “unanimous in the opinion that the new building was one of the most beautiful that has been building in Akron or northeastern Colorado.” However, there was still some work to be done. WPA workers were still carrying out finish work in the building in late December 1939. In January 1940, a project inspector reported that completion of the project was delayed due a decision to plaster additional rooms, but the project was expected to be completed by February 12, 1940.

The positive response of county residents to the Akron Gymnasium project inspired the construction of a similar structure in the nearby town of Otis. In December 1939, the school district submitted a WPA project application for the construction of a concrete gymnasium with a domed roof at the Otis High School. According to the application: “Otis is entirely without auditorium facilities. A fine gymnasium has been built at Akron and the high school system wishes to build a similar building at Otis.” The district hired Eugene Groves to design the Otis Gymnasium. The Otis Gymnasium is still in use by the school district, but the district has significantly altered it. The district divided the interior of the gymnasium and new building construction on has obscured much of the exterior on the south and east. The Otis Gymnasium is smaller than the Akron Gymnasium. It is more modern in appearance, with its concrete structure exposed and rounded corners that suggest an Art Moderne influence.

 

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